In my ‘11 Things to Know Before Travelling to Japan’, I tackled how the country has an amazing public transport system, that gourmet-level meals are available at convenience stores, and that their toilets are indeed as amazing as you think. What I didn’t tell you about Japan is how important the cherry blossoms are to the nation’s culture.
In Japan, cherry blossoms, or sakura, symbolize the season of spring. They represent renewal and life after death – an annual reminder of the fleeting but inherently beautiful nature of life and being. Cherry blossoms are so important to Japanese culture that they’ve become global symbols of the nation, which can be seen in how they’re portrayed in media on the country. On the silver screen, the iconic blossoms can be seen in films such as the Akira Kurosawa classic Dreams as well as Doris Dörrie’s critically-acclaimed German family drama, Cherry Blossoms. On the web, digital gaming platform Expatbets has a Japanese style title called Sakura Fortune, which is directly inspired by the cherry blossom season. On the main image of the game, the cherry blossoms are featured as prominently as the lead character, symbolizing how important they are to Japanese culture. The same can be said about popular classic video games like Okami, Pokémon, and Bushido Blade. Meanwhile, in Japan, the Japanese continue to hold hanami parties that are all about viewing sakura trees at the peak of their beauty. So with that in mind, here are some of the best places to join the locals in seeing one of the most breathtaking natural phenomena on the planet.
It’s easy to ignore on the Japanese map because of its location, but Okinawa – Japan’s southernmost prefecture – is perfectly placed to host the first hanami festivals of the year. This is because cherry blossoms bloom in the southwest around January to February, and then the continuous blooming happens slowly towards the northeast until it reaches Sapporo in Hokkaido in late April to early May. You can experience this at Yaedake Sakura-no-Mori Park, followed by Nago Central Park for the Nago Cherry Blossom Festival, the Nakijin Castle Ruins for the Nakijin Gusuku Cherry Blossom Festival, and Yogi Park for the Naha Sakura Festival. Blue Moon rightly advises travelers to visit Okinawa if they want to see cherry blossoms at their peak. Fun fact: Okinawans are known for their longevity, much of which is attributed to their tradition of healthy, unprocessed, local cuisine.
The cherry blossoms here usually bloom by mid to late March. The usual locations for local hanami parties in the Kagoshima prefecture are Maruoka Park and Tadamoto Park, the latter of which is open 24 hours, making it perfect for yozakura or viewing cherry blossoms at night. You can also try Shiroyama Park, a former castle fortification that not only has sakura in bloom, but also a great view of Kagoshima Bay from the elevated observatory area.
Japan’s technological and cultural center is no stranger to the blooming of the sakura. In the Japanese capital of Tokyo, hanami events happen usually during the end of March until early April. Out of the many crowded parks to visit in the city, we recommend Shinjuku Gyoen Garden not just because it’s less crowded but also for its sheer size. As a former samurai family-owned-garden-turned-imperial-park, Shinjuku Gyoen is typically well-maintained and offers visitors a natural respite in the middle of neo-Tokyo’s hustle and bustle.
Late March to early April is also the perfect time window to visit the blossoming of Kyoto’s weeping sakura trees. UNESCO World Heritage site Daigo-Ji Temple is an always reliable place not just for hanami events, but also for seeing gorgeous autumnal maple leaves. If you prefer to view the blossoms at night, visit Maruyama Park, which is the oldest public park in all of Kyoto. After you’ve had your fill of viewing gorgeous sakura in bloom, know that Kyoto is also home to one of the largest concentrations of old temples in Japan. In fact, it’s home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, many of which are surrounded by absolutely gorgeous and assorted foliage during cherry blossom season.
The city of Sapporo, which is the capital of Hokkaido prefecture in northern Japan, sees the bloom of cherry blossoms during late April to early May. While this time window approaches summer, note that this is also a colder part of the country, which means warm mornings but intensely cold nights. Residents usually gather at Maruyama Park as well as the famed Hokkaido Shrine to get their fill of hanami parties. If you want to take the less crowded path, check Nakajima Park, which also offers a variety of sakura such as the sargent cherry, weeping cherry, and the double-flowered cherry blossom. And if you want to see probably the largest single collection of sakura in bloom, make sure to check out “Cherry Blossom Forest” in Moerenuma Park, which boasts around 2,600 blossoming sakura trees located within its 189 hectares.
Seeing as the blossoming of sakura trees are a natural phenomenon, it can be sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly when it happens. The most dramatic example of this is when Typhoons Jebi and Trami caused cherry blossoms to bloom during the fall season of last year, which arborist Hiroyuki Wada told the Washington Post, he blames on temperature and chemical changes caused by powerful winds and seawater spray. That’s why it’s always a good idea to look up cherry blossom season forecasts online to see what the experts have to say about when sakura season is coming.