Every year, from late March to early April, cherry blossoms - or sakura - bloom all across Japan, transforming the country into a sea of gorgeous pale pink. The season ushers in the arrival of spring and for the Japanese signifies a new beginning. More than a natural wonder, the whole country comes alive with performances, festivals and a celebration of food, wine, family, friends and life itself during this time.
The arrival of cherry blossom season is as eagerly awaited by Japanese people as Christmas and New Year are for many Westerners. Signalling the end of winter, cherry blossom season also celebrates the arrival of spring as the beautiful national flower comes into bloom in a symbol of hope and renewal. For the Japanese, cherry blossom season signals a new beginning and all the excitement that comes from starting afresh. Because the petals only last for a week or two before they come fluttering down like pink snow to blanket the streets, cherry blossoms have also become a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life itself. During sakura season, Japan comes alive with a series of themed events, often revolving around food, drink and music, and the entire country seems in a happy mood as the cities are abloom in shades of blush pink, red and white and a distinctive sweet fragrance fills the air. At most bigger venues, you will find geishas dressed in colourful kimonos, street performers entertaining the crowds and people playing traditional games so it will feel like you are part of a big party.
Each cherry blossom will flower for only around one to two weeks but because the tree depends on a certain temperature to bloom, sakura season lasts for as long as three months, starting in the tropical islands of Okinawa and then reaching north towards Hokkaido in the later stages as the warm weather spreads.So much of a tradition has cherry blossom season become that there is a whole ritual around viewing them - called 'hanami' (literally flower viewing) which dates back more than 1000 years and often includes some kind of outdoor party. Cherry blossoms are more than just the national flower to the Japanese people and their image is celebrated in art, music, food, dance, poetry, movies, theatre and even sport, with the national rugby team named for the beautiful flower. As the season approaches, parks fill with picnicking families, strolling couples, and gatherings of people young and old. Selfies become de rigeur and professional photographers spend hours to create the best angles and lighting to capture this wonder of nature in action.The season changes slightly each year and the best place to get information on when to expect full bloom in any region is through the Japan Weather Association (www.jwa.or.jp) who give regular updates on which areas are flowering.
Late March to late AprilThe former samurai residence of the Naito family, Shinjuku Gyoen Garden has been likened to the city's smaller version of New York's Central Park. Dating back to the Edo Period (1603 - 1867) it features three distinct areas: a Japanese garden, an English Garden and a French garden. The English garden is especially popular as a hanami spot, with sprawling lawns and lots of beautiful cherry trees to admire.
Late March to late AprilUeno Park is undoubtedly one of the most popular sakura spots in Japan with more than 1200 cherry blossoms lining the streets that lead to the National Museum and around Shinbobazu Pond. You won't have the park to yourself but you should be able to find a nice spot to set up your picnic and if you want to make new friends there will be plenty of them around, with over 2 million people visiting each year.
Late March to late AprilLocated next to Yasaka Shrine, Maruyama Park is the oldest in Kyoto, and also the most popular at cherry blossom time. Huge weeping cherry blossoms takes pride of place in the park, lit at night like something from fairytale. Wooden tables are set up for picnickers and the sprawling garden is a delight to wander around thanks to several historic monuments and the beautiful Lake Biwa-ko where blossoms float on the water.
Mid to late AprilIf cherry blossoms are a national treasure, then it stands to reason that the Osaka Mint is a prime viewing spot for the sakura season. With a path near the Yodo River linked with double-flowered cherry trees which typically bloom a little later than most, people flock here for one week each year when the Mint opens its path up for blossom viewing, a tradition that originated in 1883. This path, stretching 560 metres from the South Gate to the North Gate is not usually available to the public so it's a rare treat. The Mint is said to have around 350 cherry trees of more than 120 varieties so it's a great place to see the many different shades of blossom.
Late March to early AprilNagoya Castle is one of Japan's most beautiful castles, with its distinctive fan-shaped sloping walls. Largely destroyed during WWII, its gardens and moats provide a great viewing place for cherry blossom season, with some rare varieties of blossoms within its grounds. It also provides spectacular views over the city. It is especially magical at night when the cherry blossoms are lit up.
You can pick up a plastic picnic sheet at almost any 100 yen store. Arrive early to reserve your space and make sure someone in your group stays to protect your position.Bring a jacket or blanket as the evenings can still turn chilly.Evenings are especially magical as most venues will set up lanterns and fairy lights through the cherry blossoms.Many restaurants and bars offer cherry blossom-themed menus and special promotions - ask your concierge for advice on the best offerings in your city and keep your eyes peeled when travelling the metro for advertisements that will tell you where to go.
Visiting Japan during the cherry blossom will be an incredible experience to live, but you can make this moment of your life an unforgettable one! Just have a rest in one of our hotels in Japan and this trip will be like a fairy tale.
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