Japan’s love for blossom started with plum trees, many centuries ago. The spring blossom marked the beginning of the rice planting season, and the celebrations of the new year’s harvest. While some elders still celebrate plum blossom, the tradition of hanami (flower viewing) became almost exclusive to cherry blossom (sakura) during the 8th century. Each year, a few days are still chosen to celebrate the delicate blossom and welcome in spring.
The timing is totally dependent on Mother Nature – as the weather influences the trees, the flowers can start unfurling any time from late March through to May. Every year a cherry blossom forecast is broadcast on TV, so locals can plan a hanami party in their favourite park.
The best place to go
Hanami is popular throughout Japan, but some places are famed for their festivals, including the castle town of Himeji. The Nishi-no-Maru (West Bailey) Garden here holds around 1,000 glorious cherry trees, including Yoshino cherry trees and weeping cherry trees. There are sometimes mini concerts held here, adding to the magical experience.
In Osaka, the Japan Mint opens its grounds for one week every spring to allow visitors to enjoy the cherry blossom viewing tunnel – more than 100 varieties of trees flower here. If your dates don’t coincide, take a stroll along the Okawa River, lined with nearly 5,000 cherry trees. Hundreds of trees also fill the Osaka Castle park grounds, so you can combine your hanami celebrations with a little bit of history.
Japan’s capital is also worth a mention – Tokyo boasts dozens of beautiful parks. When heading to one of the museums at Ueno Park, allow yourself some extra time to view the 1,200 blossoming cherry trees that stand here. Or maybe take a boat along the moats of Edo Castle, fringed with powder-pink blossoms.
What to take to the party
Parties traditionally gather on picnic blankets to celebrate hanami. Workers, housewives, students and retirees alike all take time out to mark the occasion, enjoying sake, beer and seasonal foods under clouds of pale blossoms. To get one of the highly sought-after spots you need to get there early, but the party can last well into the night.
A picnic spread may include hanami bento, a lunchbox packed with sushi rolls, tofu and fishcakes. Fried chicken and fish, rice balls and salads also make good picnic dishes, as do sakuramochi – rice cakes wrapped in a cherry tree leaf with sweet red bean paste inside.
Spring blossom is part of Japan’s cultural and philosophical beliefs – the short period of bloom is considered a metaphor for life. Its significance has been noted by influential poets and artists, to the point of becoming a cultural hallmark. Galleries show off old woodblock prints and modern posters of famous places and landscape views featuring sakura. On top of the usual array of paintings and souvenirs found with pretty floral designs, the hanami season brings many more cherry blossom products to shop shelves. Look out for limited edition foods and drinks such as sakura chu-hai (sweet alcoholic drinks), sakura dumplings, sakura KitKats, sakura beer, sakura crisps and even a sakura-flavoured Starbucks latte. Its flavour is quite unique, so try before you stock up!
How to experience Japan’s cherry blossom
Though the timing of the cherry blossom can never be guaranteed, travelling in late March or April gives you the best chance of seeing the sakura around Honshu island. Our 14-day ‘Essence of Japan’ escorted tour has 20 departures in March and April. Alternatively, you could opt for the 23 March departure of ‘China and Japan – Timeless Traditions’, which includes visits to Himeji, Osaka and Tokyo.