Every spring, the Japanese countryside is blanketed by flower petals. Known locally as sakura zensen, the cherry blossoms front begins on the southern islands of Okinawa in late January, before sweeping north as the temperature rises.
Cherry blossom season is a major cause for celebration in Japan, but it’s as fleeting as it is beautiful. The flowers only bloom for two weeks every year, which means visitors to the country need to do a little planning if they want to experience it firsthand. Luckily, there’s a range of online resources to help you organise your trip.
A Brief History of Cherry Blossoms
Cherry blossoms, or sakura, have a special significance in Japanese culture and the celebrations that mark their arrival have been going on for more than 1000 years. The first recorded history of hanami – picnicking under the cherry blossoms – can be traced back to the 8th century. Originally practiced by the royal court as a way of marking the spring harvest, the custom gradually spread to the wider population and took on more spiritual undertones.
Symbol of Life & Death
18th century Japanese scholar, Motoori Norinaga, saw the cherry blossoms’ brief period of flowering as a metaphor for life and death. He wrote about this extensively and incorporated cherry blossoms into his philosophy of mono no aware, which roughly translates to a moment of sadness about the transience of life.
Centuries later, cherry blossoms remain a permanent fixture in Japanese art, literature, and philosophical outlook. These trees are deeply symbolic and have often been given as gifts to other countries.
The blossoms are also used in a number of local Japanese dishes. Pickled blossoms are added to hot water to produce a ceremonial drink known as sakurayu, while the leaves that follow are often used to wrap up children’s sweets and candy.
Cherry Blossoms in Japan
Cherry blossoms are an international symbol of Japan as well as a popular tourist attraction. To help foreigners experience the beauty of this natural phenomenon, the Japan Cherry Blossom Association produces annual guides predicting the arrival of the blossoms. It also developed a list of the top 100 destinations to view them from throughout the country.
When is Cherry Blossom Season in Japan?
As a general rule, the cherry blossom front begins in late January with the arrival of spring on the southern islands and gradually makes its way north. Before planning a trip though, you should always check the cherry blossom forecast for this year on Japan tourism websites.
Cherry Blossom Seasons Differ from City to City
In Tokyo, cherry blossom season usually takes place at the start of April, but if you travel to the northern island of Hokkaido, they can bloom as late as May. Annual seasonal variations also play a part – a late spring can set the cherry blossoms back a week or more.
This gives tourists a three-month window of opportunity to see the flowers in full bloom and time to enjoy a traditional Japanese picnic underneath their canopy. These picnics often last well into the night and are fuelled by a combination of beer, sake and local food. That being said, you’re welcome to improvise and anyone who’s been inside a Japanese 7-11 knows how well stocked they are.
Cherry Blossoms 2016
Cherry blossom season in 2016 is forecast to peak in late March. The good dates to check out the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Fukuoka and Tokyo, are after 20th March. In Hokkaido, the sakura season is in full bloom between 2-6 April.
Where to Find Cherry Blossoms
Sakura in Tokyo
If you’re in Tokyo, Ueno Park is widely regarded as the most picturesque location to experience the cherry blossoms from. More than 1200 trees are located throughout the parklands and surrounding museums. If you want to beat the crowds, a common tactic is to show up early and lay down some blankets to reserve a spot. You can then return later in the day to enjoy your prime location.
If your schedule allows you to travel outside of the capital, the castle town of Hirosaki is renowned for its natural beauty as well as its cherry blossoms. Alternatively, you can travel to Nara Prefecture, where you’ll find 30,000 trees covering Mount Yoshino with a delicate pink coating. It’s generally a four or five-hour trip from Tokyo, but it’s widely regarded as the most beautiful cherry blossom location in all of Japan.
Sakura in Kyoto
In Kyoto, a special ceremony is held on the second Sunday of April at the Daigoji temple. Participants dress in traditional period costume and recreate a cherry blossom party from 1598.
Sakura in Osaka
If you’re in Osaka, the Japan Mint opens its grounds to the public for one week during cherry blossom season. It’s located along the riverbank and offers spectacular views of both the city and the trees, making it an ideal backdrop for a picnic.
Wherever you happen to find yourself in Japan, cherry blossom season is a unique experience and one of the best photo opportunities you’ll ever come across. All you need is picnic blanket, a bottle of sake and tree to call your own.