TOKYO, April 23 — There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having the white and pink petals of cherry blossoms flutter gently from branches and floating down all around you.
Known as sakura in Japan, these flowers have a delicate, transient beauty. Here today, gone tomorrow. Which makes the sakura season such a perfect, precious moment in time.
The best periods to enjoy cherry blossoms in Japan differ from region to region; the flowering starts from the south and moves slowly towards the north. This means there’s always a chance to catch sakura in another part of Japan even if you miss it where you visit.
In Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, sakura blooms from mid-January onwards making it the earliest spot for hanami (cherry blossom viewing). The last place to flower is the northern island of Hokkaido, where the sakura is at its peak in May.
For the month of April, the best places to view cherry blossoms are in the central Kanto and Kansai regions, including the city of Tokyo.
Even within the capital, sakura may flower at different times so you can happily “chase” after the blossoms from one place to the next.
Most sakura seekers begin with Ueno Park, possibly the most famous hanami spot in Tokyo due to the trees flowering earlier than at other spots in the city. This makes it incredibly attractive to early birds so be prepared for the largest crowds too.
Located in north-eastern part of town, this public park was established in 1873 on land that used to belong to the Kan’ei-ji Buddhist temple.
With more than a thousand cherry trees along Ueno Park’s main pathway, this is one of the longest and most dramatically framed “sakura streets” in Japan. No surprise, then, that both sides of the street are tightly packed with hanami parties.
There are even signs reminding picnickers to use up each allocated space wisely so everyone can enjoy.
There’s nothing quite like the sight of cherry trees exploding into full bloom above you, their branches heavy with snowy-white petals. Picnickers share jokes and enjoy their drinks — alcoholic beverages are allowed here; everyone drinks responsibly under the watchful eye of the park police — while loners manage to contemplate poetry even amidst the cacophony.
If you haven’t packed a picnic basket, fret not: there are plenty of food stalls near the Ueno Toshogu Shrine and the Shinobazu Pond within the park.
Most visitors are too busy admiring the view — not to mention trying to capture the best picture with their cameras and smartphones — to worry about a growling belly though.
For a different sakura experience altogether, head to the Meguro River where over 800 cherry trees line nearly its entire length. To get there, exit Meguro Station then head downhill towards Yamate-dori.
This is a pleasant walk through an old neighbourhood famed for their ramen shops that will take you directly to the river. Banked by concrete walls, Meguro River looks more like a man-made canal most days of the year but not in spring.
During haru (Japanese for springtime), both sides of Meguro River burst into clouds of cherry blossoms; some branches are so heavy with petals they appear to be pouring into the river itself like a sakura waterfall.
Unlike Ueno Park, the riverside promenades on either side aren’t too crowded and make for a pleasant stroll. You can easily walk along one bank then turn around near Nakameguro Station and continue on the other side.
Pink-and-white festival lanterns flutter in the light breeze, reminding you that the Japanese see spring as a time to celebrate. One of the best spots to view the full panorama of cherry blossoms dropping down from both sides is from the Hinodebashi Bridge. Quite often you can spot a boat or two with passengers enjoying a luxurious champagne picnic on board.
If you prefer a more natural-looking body of water, then Chidorigafuchi is the sakura sanctuary for you. Situated on the north-west corner of the large moat surrounding the Tokyo Imperial Palace, Chidorigafuchi has a serene ambience that seems otherworldly when the cherry trees are in full bloom.
Families with children, dog owners walking their furry friends, small groups of joggers: everyone is out to enjoy the circuitous route around the moat lined with hundreds of cherry trees. To continue the water motif, this certainly feels like a sea of sakura — pinkish white and oh so pretty.
The most popular activity here is rowing a boat and admiring the cherry blossoms from the water. What could be more romantic, than a boat ride for two?
Renting a boat is quite easy; however, be prepared for quite a queue, sometimes over an hour long, as many share the same romantic notions. It’s a spectacular wait, what with the fragile petals gently falling from above whenever the wind blows.
If you ask the locals, they may well award the most beautiful hanami spot in Tokyo to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, near the lively Shinjuku Ni-chome entertainment district.
In this elegantly landscaped park, home to over one thousand cherry trees, you will find the iconic blossoms of the Somei Yoshino as well as the drooping branches of the Shidarezakura, the weeping cherry tree.
One of the reasons Shinjuku Gyoen is the favourite hanami destination of Tokyoites is its forgiving flowering schedule. There are more than a dozen varieties of cherry trees which makes for a rather long sakura season.
Early flowering cherry trees include the tiny Kanzakura blossoms (open by late February, way ahead of the pack) and the dark pink, bell-shaped Kanhizakura.
In mid April to late May, late bloomers such as the lemon-hued Ukon and the hundred-petalled Kikuzakura (or the Chrysanthemum Cherry) make an appearance.
Picnics are allowed in Shinjuku Gyoen but alcoholic beverages are prohibited. (Note that, unlike Shinjuku Gyoen and Ueno Park, picnics are not allowed at either Meguro River or Chidorigafuchi.) Still, the happy faces of hanami picnickers mean most of them aren’t missing their beer buzz too much.
For sakura season isn’t about what you can’t have or enjoy but about what you can experience right now. Cherry blossoms are so ephemeral — here for such a brief time — that all you can do, all you should do, is lose yourself in the moment and the magic.
Uenokoen, Ikenohata 3-chome, Taito, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 5am-11pm
Nearest station: Ueno Station on JR Yamanote Line or Tokyo Metro Hibiya Line
Meguro-kawa, 3 Chome-9 Higashishinagawa, Shinagawa, Tokyo, Japan
Nearest station: Meguro Station on JR Yamanote Line or Tokyo Metro Namboku Line
Kudanminami 2-chome, Sanbancho, Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan
Nearest station: Kudanshita Station on Tokyo Metro Hanzomon Line
11 Naitomachi, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Open Tue-Sun 9am-4pm (but open daily 9am-4pm in late March–late April during hanami season)
Nearest station: Shinjuku-gyoenmae Station on Tokyo Metro Marunouchi Line
Admission: Adults 200 yen (RM8), elementary and high school students 50 yen (RM2), infants free