Spring in Japan can only mean one thing: cherry blossom.
Sandwiched between the long, bitter winter months and the sweltering humidity of summer, spring is by far the most popular time for tourism in Japan, both domestically and internationally. The atmosphere at this time of year is infectious, with parks full of revelers and supermarket shelves stocked with the latest flower-flavored snacks and drinks.
The “front” of cherry blossoms (or sakura) stretches across the country each year, beginning with Okinawa in the far south in February and progressing across Japan to northern Hokkaido in May. A variety of factors can affect cherry blossom bloom: a particularly cold winter can mean flowers come out late, unusually mild weather can allow them to come out earlier, and heavy rains can mean trees drop petals much more. faster than otherwise. For this reason, the forecast is avidly followed throughout the sakura season.
The cherry blossom usually begins to bloom in Okinawa around January / February, passes through central Japan in March and April, and ends with a late bloom in northern Hokkaido in May. In high altitude areas, the flower also arrives later than in low altitude regions.
Tokyo usually sees its first buds in the last days of March, with full bloom around April 5. Kyoto follows a day or two later, while the mountainous areas around Takayama and Matsumoto bloom about two weeks later, beginning in mid-April.
If you are lucky enough to be in Japan during cherry blossom season, it is de rigueur to head to the local parks and gardens, bring a selection of picnic food and drinks, and join the locals for a hanami – or “flower viewing. “. It is during this period that the Japanese are most relaxed, and all public places take on a party atmosphere.
Typical hanami locations include city parks, landscaped gardens, castle grounds, and along riverbanks, and you’ll find all of these areas buzzing with people throughout the sakura season. Flowering typically only lasts a couple of weeks, sometimes less if there’s heavy rain on the cards, so you only have a short time to enjoy the trees in full bloom. So popular are these parties that some companies will pay a staff member to sit in the park all day, saving a spot for the office hanami at night.
Hanami can be performed in the daytime sun or in the afternoon. They are both charming, but we particularly enjoy the flowers at sunset when the lanterns hang from the trees, turning the canopy a blazing pink. You may also be lucky enough to see a geisha or two entertaining customers under the trees.
The hanami tradition has a history that dates back many centuries, and is believed to have started during the Nara Period (710-794), so if you get involved you will join one of the most beloved and time-honored rituals in Japan. .
Although the term hanami has been used almost exclusively to refer to cherry blossom viewing parties since the Heian Period (794-1185), historically the Japanese celebrated hanami parties under wisteria and plum blossom as well. Some older Japanese still gather to see the plum blossom (ume) today, as a quieter alternative to the sometimes scandalous hanami gatherings.
In ancient Japan, the cherry blossom was of great importance because it heralded the rice planting season and was used to guess the harvest of the year. Her fleeting beauty, moreover, was celebrated as a metaphor for life itself, and was praised in numerous poems of the time.
Such was its significance that the Japanese believed that sakura trees contained spirits and offered offerings with rice wine. This grew in the tradition of the hanami party – a celebration of feasting, drinking and partying that is believed to have started in the imperial court of Emperor Saga and gradually seeped through Samurai classes to become a tradition loved by all. levels of society.
If you are in Japan during hanami season, it may seem like the country has gone a bit sakura crazy. Not only are there flower-themed events and festivals across the country, but even the produce in supermarkets reflects the upcoming season, with a limited-edition sakura-flavored drinks and beverages on the menu for just a time.
These include sakura chu-hai (canned sweet alcoholic beverages), sakura meatballs, sakura KitKats, sakura beer (yes, really), sakura crisps – there’s even a sakura-flavored Starbucks latte!
And what does it taste like? Well, most people will agree that it is something of an acquired taste, with a taste between lavender and soap!
Our top ten hanami points
There are countless hanami spots all over Japan, and everyone has their own favorite spot, so we’ve rounded up some of our top picks to get you started:
1. Mount Yoshino, Nara Prefecture
Seen from Yoshino’s Main Viewpoint One must be either very brave or very stupid to venture to Yoshino during the peak cherry blossom season. Covered in more than 30,000 cherry trees, it is the most famous sakura viewing spot in Japan and has been for hundreds of years.
2. Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo
Tokyo is famous around the world as a hyper-modern metropolis filled with high-rise buildings and flashing neon lights, and while this is true, there are also a surprising number of green spaces where you can take a break from the hustle and bustle of the city. city to relax. One of the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Tokyo is undoubtedly Shinjuku Gyoen, which is home to over a thousand cherry trees of both early and late varieties, which means that the sakura season lasts longer than elsewhere in the city. Other charming sakura spots in the city include the Imperial Palace Gardens, Hamarikyu Gardens, and Ueno Park, so be sure to check out a few.
3. Himeji Castle, Hyogo Prefecture
Fully reopened this year after a five-year facelift, Japan’s largest and most impressive castle is also a wonderful place to view cherry blossoms. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has survived fires, wars, earthquakes and the Meiji Restoration as one of the few original feudal castles still standing in Japan, surrounded by sakura trees, Himeji is undoubtedly the best in spring. If Himeji isn’t on your itinerary this spring, don’t worry: almost all Japanese castles (whether original or rebuilt) are great places for hanami, as they are traditionally surrounded by cherry trees.
4. Mount Fuji
The only thing better than a Japanese national icon is two Japanese national icons, and for a couple of months each year you can get two for the price of one as Mount Fuji is surrounded by cherry blossoms. There are numerous places from where you can see Mount Fuji, but our favorites are Hakone and the Fuji region. Fuji is perhaps better than Hakone when it comes to sakura, and two of the best places are the north shore of Lake Kawaguchiko and Chureito Pagdo, built on the hills above Fujiyoshida city.
5. Philosopher’s Way, Kyoto
The Kyoto Philosophers’ Path is a beautiful stone walkway that follows a canal that runs through the northern part of the Higashiyama district of the city. It gets its name from a particular philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, who was said to have wandered the path of meditation on his way to Kyoto University. The path runs for about two kilometers and, in addition to numerous restaurants, cafes and shops, it is lined with cherry trees, which turn colorful in early April, providing one of the most popular hanami spots in Kyoto.
6. Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa
Recognized as one of the top three landscaped gardens in Japan (and widely regarded as the best of the three), Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa is a beautiful place to visit at any time of year, but especially during cherry blossom season. The garden is so large that you could easily spend a couple of hours wandering around it.
7. Miharu Takizakura
Miharu Takizakura, (literally “Miharu Waterfall Cherry Tree”) is located near the small town of Miharu, in Fukushima prefecture, in the northern Tohoku region, on the main island of Honshu in Japan. At over a thousand years old, 12 meters tall and with a trunk circumference of 9.5 meters, this massive weeping cherry is probably the most famous tree in Japan, and many consider it the most beautiful.
8. Hirosaki Castle, Hirosaki
From around the end of April each year, the park around Hirosaki Castle is transformed into a pink wonderland with more than 2,500 cherry trees, cherry blossom tunnels, nighttime illuminations, completely pink moats with petals, beautiful areas of picnic and rental rafts that combine to create a truly magical hanami. If you visit between April 23 and May 5, you will also see the Hirosaki cherry blossom festival. This is considered one of the three best places to see cherry blossoms in Japan.
9. Hanamiyama Park, Fukushima
Another entrance to the northern Tohoku region of Japan, Hanamiyama Park (literally “flower-viewing mountain”) is located on the slopes surrounding a rural farming community in Fukushima Prefecture. The park was started by local farmers who began planting ornamental plants and trees in the area, and it was opened to the public in 1959. The variety of types of cherry and other trees in bloom means that there are actually a wide variety of spring colors in the area, with beautiful views of the Azuma Mountains in the distance.
10. Takato Castle Ruins, Nagano
Last but not least, on our list is Takato Castle Ruins Park in Nagano Prefecture, the last of Japan’s top three official blooms (along with Mount Yoshino and Japan Castle). Hirosaki). Situated on a hill in Ina City, Nagano, the park is about 60 km from Matsumoto (where “Black Crow” castle also offers a great hanami location). Visit during the month of April and you will find yatai stands throughout the park for the annual cherry blossom festival and there are enchanting illuminations held every evening from sunset to 10pm.
Like many of the places on this list, Takato Castle Ruins gets very crowded during sakura season, so visiting early in the morning and avoiding weekends is recommended unless you don’t mind. the crowd. Inside the park, the curved Onkyo Bridge is one of the most beautiful spots during cherry blossoms, but there are many other beautiful places if you take the time to wander
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