Ah, March. The prelude to Spring. The light at the end of a long winter tunnel.
Or in Japan, it’s the start of one of the most prized occasions of the year:
Cherry Blossom Season.
Whatever high expectation you have for watching cherry blossoms in Japan (or better known as ‘hanami,‘ which literally means ‘watch flowers’ 花見), Japan will not disappoint on this front. It’s a magical experience.
While many tourists envision their hanami experience like an anime opening (think wind blowing in your hair as sakura petals brush past your skin), the reality may differ somewhat. To get the kind of hanami experience you’re dreaming of, it involves more than hopping on a plane and finding a sakura tree–it will take a whole ‘lotta planning.
For optimal hanami-ing, make sure you plan and prepare well.
- Time Your Hanami Accordingly
As the famous Japanese poet Basho said:
“Very brief –
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.
From among the peach trees
the first cherry blossoms.”
While it’s a beautiful haiku, we have to remember the key words in here: very brief.
The sakura only bloom for 1-2 weeks. This means that you only have a 2 week window to fly into Japan and view these fleeting beauties. It’s no surprise that the sakura are always alluded to in Japanese poetry as a symbol of transience–because these flowers disappear, and they do it fast.
The sakura bloom at different times across the country, starting from the bottom (Kyushu and Kyoto blooms as early as the first week of March) and ending at the top (blooms are sighted in the first week of May in Hokkaido).
Lucky for us, the Japanese prepare a Sakura bloom forecast every year to help better plan our hanami activities. The forecast for 2016 is already up and you can find it here on Japan’s official travel homepage.
2. Choose a Cherry Tree Park
There’s a bazillion Cherry Blossom viewing spots across Japan, (really, look at this long list), but most people will usually flock to Tokyo and Kyoto to hanami.
One of the most popular destinations in Tokyo is Ueno Park near Ueno Station, which has long walkways of over 1,200 sakura trees as well as food stalls and other activities going on throughout the day.
However, I’m an advocate for going off the beaten path. In fact, many of the best hanami locations aren’t even in Tokyo or Kyoto!
One of them is in my home prefecture of Niigata at Takeda castle. I wrote a post last year about how seeing the cherry blossoms in Niigata isn’t only less crowded and more beautiful, but it can save you money on expensive lodgings and help introduce travelers to the “real” Japan hidden beneath Tokyo and Kyoto.
3. Night or Day Sakura? Or Both?
Didn’t think you could view sakura at night, did you? Did you know that there’s even a word for this activity?
Yozakura, or viewing the cherry blossoms at night, is a must. I didn’t even know this was a thing until I moved to Japan and realized that sakura night viewing is just as beautiful, or in some cases even more enchanting, than the daytime counterpart.
One of the up-sides to yozakura is the drop in crowds and the serenity of the evening. The cool night breeze, the moonlight draping over the fresh cherry blossoms and the stars shining in the sky will give you the ultimate Japan experience (plus, the food stalls aren’t as crowded, woo-hoo!).
4. Stake Your Spot
Space is limited under those sakura trees, and punches will be thrown for that prime real estate.
To snag a rare patch of grass (or better yet, send a friend to go and hold your spot) head out early with a large tarp and a few foldable chairs. Whatever area your tarp (and chairs) cover is yours for the day, so as long as one person is out there with a tarp in hand, you should be safe.
Finding a quiet patch of grass near a sakura tree in Tokyo and Kyoto are extra difficult to secure, so plan accordingly to make your picnic under the blossoms a reality.
5. Sit, Eat and Get Drunk
The first time I viewed the cherry blossoms, I wasn’t blown away by the pure beauty of the flowers alone.
No, my culture shock came with just how piss drunk all the Japanese people around me were.
When you walk through a seemingly serene park of cherry blossoms, be aware of the drunks underneath the trees. Teenagers, salarymen, family members–you name it, and they’re probably knocking a few shots of sake back while enjoying the sakura. Whether the Japanese are excited about the cherry blossoms, elated at the return of Spring or just looking for an excuse to get hammered, they really know how to get sloshed and have a good time when they hanami.
The Japanese love to picnic underneath the sakura. In addition to drinking copious amounts of alcohol, they will also bring bento boxes and snacks to last the entire day while they gaze at the flowers. It’s a fun-filled day to bring friends, get some food (sometimes even set up BBQ), crack open a beer and enjoy perfect weather with the perfect flower. And who knows, maybe if you’re lucky enough a drunk hanami group might invite you into their group for some free food (and booze!).
If you’re in Japan and looking to hanami, follow the five steps above and you’re sure to have an unforgettable sakura experience!