TOKYO, April 6 — Imagine soft, feather-thin petals falling from the branches of trees above you. This silent shower of snow-and-strawberry-coloured flowers is like a magical scene from a dream, except it’s really happening. If only for the briefest of time.
Yes, sakura season is upon us again. From the end of March to early May every year, more than a million tourists visit Japan from around the world to catch the sakura (cherry blossoms) in full bloom. During these few precious weeks, both locals and foreigners alike partake gleefully in the centuries-old tradition of hanami (“flower viewing”).
Cherry blossoms are the flowers of any cherry trees classified under the genus Prunus. Japan alone has over 200 types of sakura, from the pristine, nearly pure white someiyoshino to the rich pink of the heavily-petalled yaezakura. The shidarezakura, also known as the weeping cherry, has graceful, falling branches resembling those of a weeping willow.
With such a delightful spectacle awaiting the curious traveller, when’s a good time to visit Japan then, to catch the cherry blossoms at their absolute best?
Shibuya resident Nao Ohniwa shares, “We actually have a sakura forecast during the weather section of TV news shows around this time of year. Weather reporters update us continuously on the dates when the cherry blossoms first begin to flower and when they are in full bloom.”
Interestingly, the “cherry blossom front” (or sakura zensen) moves from south to north. Therefore, the earliest trees to bloom — as early as January or February — are located at the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. The last blossoms are seen in the northern island of Hokkaido; in its capital Sapporo, they don’t start blooming before early May. For most of Japan though, including Tokyo, the flowering season is from late March to late April.
While foreign tourists may busy themselves with maniacally snapping pictures of these subtly-scented blossoms, the locals take their time to appreciate the view. The Japanese indulge in the traditional practice of hanami, which is said to have started during the Nara Period (710–794).
How does hanami work exactly, then? Ohniwa explains matter-of-factly, “My friends and I have picnics with food and drinks, and just relax under the sakura trees.”
Most hanami participants bring along large plastic sheets, usually a uniform blue, to spread out beneath cherry trees. Many, like Ohniwa and his friends, carry their own picnic baskets laden with bento sets, flasks of hot ocha (green tea) and plenty of alcohol. In fact, we observe many picnickers breaking out in song over carefully poured cups of sake.
Ohniwa adds, “You can do hanami at night too. It’s called yozakura. Most parks are open at night during the sakura season. The cherry trees are stunningly lit up. So you may enjoy sipping your drink while watching the sakura. Be sure to keep yourself warm though as it’s still cold at night in Tokyo during March and April!”
At popular cherry blossom viewing spots, folks arrive early to snatch the best spots. By mid-morning, most would have marked their territories by spreading their picnic sheets and appointing one member to stand watch, sometimes for a whole day, before the rest of the party arrives after work. So, what constitutes some prime real estate for hanami aficionados?
Probably one the most famous destinations for sakura lovers, Ueno Park (officially Ueno Onshi Koen, or “Ueno Imperial Gift Park”) was originally a gift to the city of Tokyo by Emperor Taisho in 1924. The long rows of cherry trees, alternating between talcum-white someiyoshino and the gallant yamazakura (mountain cherry) that have inspired the chivalrous samurai arts of Bushido, present a glorious backdrop for springtime parties.
It’s a decidedly mixed crowd here — there are young families, salarymen, elegant old ladies in exquisite kimonos, teenagers dressed in Harujuku gear, and of course, tourists. Some come to pray at the Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple, dedicated to the Japanese version of the Chinese Guan Yin (or the Goddess of Mercy). Join the devotees in washing your hands with cold spring water from a large trough and offering your prayers.
If you’re hungry, try some Japanese street food near the Benten-do Temple by the Shinobazu Pond. Favourites include yakitori (charcoal-grilled chicken pieces), and takoyaki (small balls of diced baby octopus fried in batter, then topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise and fishy katsuobushi shavings).
Matsusaka native Satomi Sakaguchi prefers the quiet neighbourhood of Yanaka over the crowds at Ueno Park. She tells us, “This is an old neighbourhood of Tokyo, where there are still traditional and charming machiya-style townhouses.”
Yanaka is also the home to the famous Yanaka Cemetery, the final resting place for venerable Japanese personalities such as Meiji era novelist Soseki Natsume and the last shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.
In total, there are more than 7,000 graves in the Yanaka Cemetery. The main street is called the Cherry-blossom Avenue as it is lined with large and very old cherry blossom trees. This beautiful canopy draws those wishing to pay their respects to their dearly departed, as well as the usual hanami parties.
Artists also come here for inspiration. We come upon a “live” calligraphy performance under the trees. The artist paints barefoot on long rolls of parchment pressed simply against the pavement. We discover the painter is actually Sosuke Kimura, an acclaimed Japanese calligrapher. His brushwork is impeccable and full of energy.
Sakaguchi says, “The lines Kimura is writing come from a book of poetry. He is performing in public to show that art does not need to be exclusive, that it should be open for everybody.”
Another spectacular site to view cherry blossoms is Shinjuku Gyoen, once the samurai residence of the feudal Lord Naito during the Edo period. Today, the former imperial garden is a natural sanctuary in the heart of the cosmopolitan Shinjuku and Shibuya districts.
You may enter Shinjuku Gyoen via the Sendagaya Gate, Okido Gate or Shinjuku Gate. Each entrance brings you along a different path, leading into beautiful ornamental gardens such as the French Formal Garden, English Landscape Garden and Japanese Traditional Garden.
Take your time to linger in this veritable “forest” of cherry blossoms. Amateur painters and photographers wander around trying to capture the magnificent views. The gentlest of breezes may rain a breath-taking shower of sakura petals over your head.
Indeed, sakura is a feast for the senses. Beyond viewing the cherry trees in full bloom or inhaling the light fragrance of the petals, you can even taste them! Both the flowers and leaves are edible. Traditionally the blossoms are pickled in umezu (plum vinegar) and salt. These are then used to make anpan, a sweet bun filled with red bean paste, and sakurayu (cherry blossom tea), made from infusing the pickled blossoms in hot water.
Fans of mochi (Japanese glutinous rice cakes) may enjoy sakuramochi made from the pickled leaves of the oshima cherry. There are even limited-edition sakura-flavoured Kit-Kats available during this period which makes for thoughtful if overly-sweet souvenirs.
Traditional Japanese tattoo art or irezumi enthusiasts will recognise further significance of cherry blossoms in tattoo designs. There is a beautiful irony about these ephemeral flowers being permanently etched onto skin; perhaps it’s a reminder that we, too, shall pass.
This sense of the fleeting nature of life is deeply meaningful for the Japanese, with its rich Buddhist symbolism of impermanence. The more transient these blossoms, the more beautiful they are, as with life.
SAKURA HOTSPOTS TO EXPLORE
Ueno Onshi Koen, Taito, Tokyo, Japan
• The park is right next to Ueno Kensei Station or a five-minute walk from the Ueno Koen exit at JR Ueno Station (JR Yamanote Line, Ginza Line or Hibiya Line).
Yanaka Reien, Yanaka 7-chome, Taito, Tokyo, Japan
• The cemetery is a one-minute walk from JR Nippori Station (Yamanote line). Enter via the west exit.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
11 Naito-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan
• Open Tue – Sun 9am – 4:30pm; closed Mondays except during late March – late April and early November.
• Enter through the Shinjuku Gate (10-minute walk east from the south exit of JR Shinjuku Station or from Shinjukugyoenmae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line), Sendagaya Gate (five-minute walk from JR Sendagaya Station on the Chuo/Sobu Line) or Okido Gate (a short walk from Shinjukugyoenmae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line).
Cherry blossom forecast
• For the latest 2014 cherry blossoms forecast including the dates of first and full blooms in various cities, check out http://www.jnto.go.jp/sakura/eng/index.php