Everything You Need to Know About the Cherry Blossom Season in Japan
Cherry blossoms are famed around the world for their sheer beauty, and yet they are so transient that they do not stick around forever – so witnessing them in full bloom is a sight that ought not to be missed. In Japan, it’s almost impossible to picture the country in Springtime without the skies being awash in a sea of pale pink hues.
However, organising a trip specifically to see them has to be timed properly and with great care. You need to consider the possibility that you may miss out altogether, if you’re even slightly early or too late. Luckily, they appear annually – so perhaps this year will be your year?
The appreciation of these beautiful flowers is nothing new, and in fact, this phenomenon dates back to around the eighth century. While Japan is so often celebrated for its modern outlook on the world, we ought never to forget that in actual fact, tradition far precedes technology.
It is said that hundreds of years ago, the elite of the day would assemble in admiration of the blossoms, and it’s evident that even before this, they could not possibly have gone unnoticed. Over the years they’ve inspired haikus, paintings and a plethora of other creative outlets, but they also represent spirituality, too.
In fact, these flowers and hugely symbolic in Japanese culture, because their ephemeral nature is representative of life itself. The sheer fact that the cherry blossom season is so fleeting is a reminder to appreciate beauty – be it aesthetic or on a much deeper level – because you don’t know when it might be gone. Much like the circle of life, these cherry blossoms of Japan make their appearances in a cyclical manner.
The Japanese calendar also closely aligns with the blooming of the cherry blossoms. Just as Spring symbolises new beginnings, April also coincides with the beginning of both their financial and academic year!
These days, the appreciation of the delightful phenomenon of cherry blossoms in bloom actually has its own name in the Japanese language, “Hanami”. This literally means “flower viewing”, and people from across Japan take time out of their days to go and look at the blossoms, joining visitors who have flocked en masse from all four corners of the globe.
The most rewarding way to appreciate the immense intensity of such wonderful colours is to take time out of your day and just sit. These days, so many of us are glued to our phones, our email accounts at work, or we are so otherwise engaged in technology that we forget to take stock of what matters. Hanami encourages the exact opposite.
Perhaps you could take a picnic with family and friends and enjoy a sunny day basking in the beauty. This is a very typical activity at this time of year. Of course, due to the sheer numbers and diversity of people you might expect to see, some of these picnics may be calm and serene; others still may seem more like parties! Conversely, many find the viewing inspiring, and you may find locals and foreigners alike composing poetry or taking time for their art.
Of course, we do live in a commercial society in this century, and so the appreciation extends beyond nature, too! Supermarkets are filled with plastic iterations of the blossoms, in addition to cherry blossom flavoured foods. Japanese confectionery is often very experimental, and so one might expect to find the likes of cherry blossomed flavour sweets, chocolates, crisps and drinks!
Cherry blossom season is a perfect example of how Japanese people have found harmony between the old and new in their country, using the time to appreciate the blossoms in nature and all other aspects of life.
WHEN DO THE BLOSSOMS BLOOM?
The general rule of thumb is that it is difficult to say exactly when cherry blossom season is going to happen – after all, nature really is a force to be reckoned with! Its total unpredictability is often humbling, and one of the reasons why it is so enchanting to us. However, it is possible to know roughly when to expect the season to begin, and so you can make vague preparations with a fairly realistic chance of success.
As one might expect, the warmer the climate, the earlier you can expect to see the blossoms. This means that following particularly warm spells, the season may occur earlier than in other years. It also means that in the southern islands such as Okinawa, the subtropical temperatures can bring them out as early as January. As the warmth creeps upwards over the rest of the country, they then typically reach the central areas, the likes of which may include popular destinations such as Kyoto and Tokyo. You can usually expect this to be around late March or early April. If you’re visiting later than this, go as far north as you possibly can. Hokkaido, for example, known for its hot springs and ski areas, does not see much progression until early May.
Japan is known for precision in almost every respect, however, the one thing they cannot possibly schedule is cherry blossom season – although it’s not for want of trying!
Because of the sheer importance of cherry blossom season to Japanese people - in addition to the fact that they a nation famed for their superior organisational abilities – Japan has actually succeeded in forecasting the exact arrival of the blossoms.
Since 1951, meteorologists have devoted themselves to monitoring the so-called “cherry blossom front”, which is otherwise known as “sakura zensen” in Japanese. On any given year, you can head to the officially designated websiteto view their predictions, which typically get more accurate as the time approaches.
This task is based on pure science, and uses a lot of incredibly modern technology. Scientists use complex mathematical formulas to create their forecasts, and then these are broadcast across television screens both in public and in homes, and of course online as well. There is plenty of analysis as part of this forecasting, and the anticipation is indeed part of the excitement!
The build up begins when officials first observe the yoshino cherry trees with their first blooms, as these are the most common ones in the country. Experts watch closely and then, once at least five or six flowers are present, the season is declared officially open!
There’s not much room for a window of error when considering your visit, because the flowers actually only bloom for around a week before their petals fall, like snow-pink confetti, floating to the ground and off the trees. This effect is known as “sakura snow”.
It is recommended that you try to be as flexible as possible initially and wait until these predictions have been released to book your trip. If you attempt to book months or even years in advance, you simply aren’t guaranteed to get the timings right!
WHERE TO SEE CHERRY BLOSSOMS
Cherry blossom season can be witnessed all over the country, although as stipulated, the time of year that you visit may well dictate the best places to go. Some of the most popular locations in the country – both cities and natural regions – are home to some truly stunning patches where there are blossoms in abundance.
Tokyo is an awe-inspiring city at any time of the year, and so it’s a very safe bet for a visit during cherry blossom season. There are plenty of modern marvels to check out while you’re there, but there are also some truly wonderful nature spots as well. Exploring the outdoors is more than possible within the city limits, thanks to locations such as Ueno Park, one of Japan’s most beloved and traditional public spaces. You can combine your blossom viewing with checking out the numerous museums, ponds and spiritual shrines in the area. Be aware, the crowds are usually quite large because there are over 1000 trees!
There are plenty of other picnic-friendly spots, along rivers and other open spaces. Many of these have been coordinated to appease visitors, but who would possibly complain about the planting of yet more of these gorgeous trees? Shinjuku Gyoen is another, more sedate and serene option, with plenty of grass and even more trees than in Ueno Park. You do have to pay for entry, but it is more than worth it.
Chidori-ga-fuchi is yet another perfect, tranquil little spot, and you can even rent boats to observe the trees from, as you glide down the river. Alternatively, you could head to Nakameguro and its cherry-lined canal, where they even light up the trees with little lanterns. And for something a little more eerie, and yet hauntingly symbolic of our fragility (akin to that of the trees) visit Yanaka. Here you will find a cemetery filled with cherry trees, which you must observe with respect for the dead.
Kyoto offers its visitors plenty of Japan’s most mysterious marvels, such as the atmospheric temples of Kyoto which call to travellers year-round. However, the city also makes for an astonishingly pretty backdrop for cherry blossoms and their millions of appreciators. The crowds are vast, but the perfectly pleasant scenery is worth it.
A late-night stroll along Philosopher’s Path will make for an enlightening experience, with temples and shrines only adding to the charm of the cherry blossoms. If you want to see the flowers at their best, Maruyama Park is full of people enjoying “hanami”, as is Imperial Palace Park as well.
Honshu, the main island of Japan, isn’t just about the famous cities! Those looking for something a little different might wish to visit Gifu, a mountainous prefecture. Here, you can appreciate the Takayama Spring Festival. Witness floats parading by you as you’re left with the dilemma of where to look – at the festivities, or the cherry blossom trees?
They say the early bird catches the worm, but in this case it also catches the most beautiful rays of sunshine available in all of Japan. The subtropical, southernmost islands of Okinawa are unmissable, making for a dream beach holiday combining views of the ocean and cherry blossoms, all in one go. The blossoms here are a deeper pink, and you can come as early as late January to the forested Yanbaru to catch that first glimpse.
If your schedule allows, make time for the Nakijin Castle Cherry Blossom Festival. It is held annually in the ground of UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Nakijin Castle Ruins. Here you will find a real spectacle; fantastic illuminations on the castle walls, which really showcase the castle at its best. All of this takes place when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Depending on your dates of travel, it may not be possible for you to catch the blossoms in the south of the nation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll miss out. If you’re arriving as late on as April, you can still head to Tohoku, a region in the northeast which takes that little bit longer to reach the warmer temperatures required. Be respectful; much of the area was devastated after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami which of course lead to nuclear disaster.
If snow-capped mountains are more your style, Hitome Senbonzakura in Miyagi prefecture allows you the idyllic view of cherry trees lining a river, with the peaks in the background. Or, for one last hurrah, you should head to Hokkaido. For those lamenting the possibility of missing the blossoms elsewhere, there really is no need to worry. Japan’s most northern island, home to the city of Sapporo, is absolutely flooded with cherry blossoms as late on in the season as early May. Here, you can enjoy the views from the ski slopes if you are so inclined, on the mountains that played host to the Winter Olympics in 1972.