It’s true that nature can teach you a thousand lessons, such as “Nothing lasts forever,” and endlessly inspire you. To come to this powerful, valuable, and wistful realization, vısıtors flock to different parts of Japan to attend the cherry blossom festivals which are held from March to May and witness the spectacular beauty of the cherry flowers that lasts only a couple of weeks.
The Japanese cherry tree is a popular tree found all over the country. The national flower of Japan, the cherry blossom, also called sakura or somei-yoshino trees in botanical circles, blooms at its best in the months of March and April depending on the geographical location and the weather. In milder climates, such as in the southern part of Japan, blossoms open as early as February, and then sweeping towards north, the season ends in May. To enjoy the transient beauty of flowers it is both wise and important to know the best spots of hanami, the Japanese centuries-old tradition of viewing flowers, in various cities of Japan.
Start with the buzzing capital city of Tokyo where parks and green spaces abound. Shinjuku Gyo-en is undoubtedly the best park to view the spectacular sakura in full bloom. In the spacious garden more than 1,000 cherry trees of different kinds bloom in early April. Watch within the oldest park Koishikawa-Kōrakuen where gorgeous cherry blossoms reflect on the surface of a central pond making it a flowered mirror. You simply can’t resist stopping in amazement to view the petals of the cherry blossoms adorning the water like the dotted patterns of inlaid mother-of-pearl.
Especially favored by the locals is Asukayama Park which you may not find in guidebooks. But with its 600 cherry trees, it becomes a crowded hanami spot mainly because of the monorail that runs through the garden -the cherry trees viewed from above become a rare and unforgettable sight. Expect Ueno Park to be overcrowded, especially during weekends. Here, you will find people claiming their spaces using blue tarps and tapes to view the splendor of more than 800 sakura trees (many of them of late blossoming varieties) along with family and friends. Chidorigafuchi, Rikugien, and Yoyogi Parks are some of Tokyo’s other most spectacular hanami spots.
Meguro River at night is a must-visit to view an entirely different aspect of cherry blossoms. An illumination festival is held from March 24 to April 9 when thousands of bright pink lanterns line the river, each reflected on the surface of the water, making it a unique sight to behold.
Osaka is said to be one of Japan’s best cities for cherry blossom viewing. Take a walk along the Okawa Riverside promenade where more than 5,000 cherry trees are in full bloom along the river for several kilometers in early April. Nature’s spectacular beauty can be enjoyed through a relaxed 30-minute Sakura River Cruise, as well. On either side of the river, there are two popular cherry blossom spots: Kema Sakuranomiya Park and the Japan Mint where the trees flower only for a couple of days (trees largely bloom late, i.e. the end of April). The Entry is free only during the blooming period. Nishinomaru Park in the spacious grounds of Osaka Castle is yet another popular hanami-viewing spot where over 4,000 cherry trees spread their light pink color, transforming the entire area into a kaleidoscope. A magical atmosphere is created when the Castle Tower in the backdrop of the blooming sakura is illuminated.
To catch the cherries at their peak in Kyoto, the Philosopher’s Path outshines all other contenders as the most magnificent hanami spot. The path is named after the prominent Japanese philosopher Nishida Kataro, who would meditate while on his way to Kyoto University. A stroll along the cherry tree-lined canal under the shade of the glorious sakura is a visual and sensual treat. To enjoy the fleeting bloom of the fabled pink flowers you must stay in the city at least for 10 days, and visit some of its known and not-so-known temples.
The five-story pagoda Shimo Daigo is one of the oldest structures in Kyoto. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Japan’s second great unifier and a warrior, samurai, and politician, was so enraptured by its beauty during the cherry blossom season in April that he ordered a complete restoration of the derelict temple. Today, the temple is visited for its amazing artwork: mandalas, sculptures, painted screens, calligraphy, and a wonderful Chinese-inspired garden. Also visit Hirano Shrine to experience the real hanami in Kyoto, where annually, on April 10, the Cherry Blossom Festival is held. You will have the chance to see free performances of traditional koto and shamisen (a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument) that draw huge crowds. If you are looking for hanami spots that are relatively less crowded, visit Shosei-en Garden wherein lays a large variety of sakura trees surrounded by serene lakes and the Higashi Hongan-ji temple. The place is devoid of selfie stick-wielding tourists because it isn’t mentioned in city guidebooks.
“Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees” is a popular saying about hanami but you will find people chatting, and singing beneath the cherry trees at Maruyama Park, the most popular place in Kyoto for nighttime hanami. At the heart of the park is a large, famous cherry tree that is loaded with white flowers around which people secure places for picnics and parties bringing home-cooked food, organizing barbecues, or buying snacks to mark the occasion.
If you have missed the peak sakura season (mid-March to early April) in Japan’s main cities, don’t lose heart. Instead, head to iconic Mount Fiji in the north where the season begins from mid-April. Places at a higher elevation, such as the Fuji Five Lakes region, have late-flowering cherry tree varieties. The region’s newly built Chureito Pagoda attracts photographers from across the globe as it is perfectly positioned for spectacular views of blush-tinted blooms with iconic Mount Fuji as the backdrop -interestingly most people capture the same shot. If you want some gorgeous views trek up 400 stone steps from Chureito Pagoda to the Arakurayama-sengen Shrine to see a picture-perfect crimson pagoda, Mount Fuji, Lake Kawaguchiko, and, of course, the spectacular cherry blossoms.
As a national flower and a much-revered cultural icon, cherry blossoms are not only symbolic of the Japanese concept of mono no aware, meaning awareness of impermanence, but the fleeting yet overwhelming beauty of the sakura also sends a message of life’s exuberance, of death and renewal.