If Wintertime blues have got you daydreaming of warm weather picnics and exotic travel then Japan’s Cherry Blossom season should surely brighten your spirits.
“Hanami,” Japanese for flower viewing season, is a hugely popular tradition that celebrates the opening of “sakura” (cherry blossoms). And, like any good celebration, it brings together friends and family with festivities of picnics — and lots of sake.
Hanami was originally used to divine a year’s harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. Back in the day — like, the late 700’s. Yes, that far back — people believed in “kami” (spirits in the Shinto religion) that resided inside the trees and would make them offerings. Afterwards, they would celebrate the event with sake.
Emperor Saga of the Heian period adopted this practice, and held flower viewing gatherings with feasts underneath the blossoming sakura trees in the Imperial Court of Kyoto. Poems would be written praising the delicate flowers while drawing metaphors for life itself: Luminous and beautiful, yet fleeting and ephemeral.
Today, cherry blossom is still party season, with thousands of locals drawn to view the sakura each day. In Tokyo, that means flocking to the parks or rows of trees that line the rivers or canals. You’ll find groups of people parked on blankets and sharing food and drink, and taking photos galore.
Even as an outsider you’ll find most Japanese people to be inviting and willing to share the special, fleeting occasion with you. Just make sure to contribute to the festivities with some snacks, sake or beer.
So how does one know when the time is right to activate your flower power?
The best time to view the blossoms in those cities range from April 2 to April 12.
Other major cities across Japan also have great parks to view cherry blossoms, including Osaka, whose prime viewing period is April 5-13, Nagoya (April 3-11) and Fukuoka (April 3-11).
Those cities are easily accessible by bullet train or a cheap flight.
For the ideal Hanami locations across Japan, See Japan has put together a great guide.
But where exactly should you end up?
There are literally hundreds of great spots for you to take in this beautiful phenomenon.
It really boils down to what kind of experience you’re looking to enjoy. In Tokyo, hundreds of sakura line the “Chidorigafuchi Moat” of the Imperial Palace.
The palace itself is a wonder to behold and it’s even possible to rent a boat in the moat to view the plethora of trees. If you arrive a bit later in the season you can get the most picturesque scene of all with the water of the moat covered in cherry blossom petals.
Romantic? For sure. Crowded? You bet. This is amongst the most famous hanami spots in all of Japan so arrive early and expect long lines for boat rentals.
If you’re trying to party hardy then Ueno Park is where you can find more of the wild flowers. This crowded 133-acre park not only has over 1000 sakura trees around it’s pond and walk way but usually boasts one of the most festive, party driven vibes of Tokyo.
Come early in the season, though, as this park has a huge number of an early blooming variation of cherry blossoms so it’s one of the first in the city to bloom.
Looking for something a bit more zen? Then consider a nighttime stroll on Kyoto’s “Philosopher Path.”
This lantern-lit tree-lined pathway starts at renowned Ginkaku-Ji Temple (or “Temple of the Silver Pavilion”) and takes you blissfully along Lake Biwa-ko to see many local delights such as Eikan-do Temple and Wakaoji-jinja Shrine. Bonus beauty points when the petals fall in the lake’s calm waters.
If you’re planning a trip solely on the intent of cherry blossom viewing, please take note: These dates are helpful but can change, since irregular weather patterns like heat waves or rainstorms can quickly change the timetable for peak viewing. The best advice is to keep an eye on the calendars listed above.
If you miss the trees in Japan, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, also boasts beautiful cherry blossom trees.
And, of course, there’s also Washington, DC’s cherry blossoms to take in if you’re looking for something more local in the U.S.
Once you witness the magic of these natural beauties in their original habitat in person, however, you’ll understand why it’s worth the trek.
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