In Japan, early spring is almost synonym for cherry blossom season. The delicately beautiful pink and white blossoms of the cherry are called sakura in Japanese. In this period of the year on television, the cherry blossom forecast draws as much attention as the news and weather forecast. In March and April, the cherry blossoms become like the unofficial symbol of Japan. Not surprisingly cherry blossoms figure prominently on the 100 Yen coin.
Culture and history of Hanami
By the end of March, in central Japan the average temperatures raise quickly to very comfortable levels. In parks, along canals and other scenic places where cherries are planted many families, groups of friends and colleagues enjoy picnic and hanami. Literally translated hanami means flower viewing. Coincidentally end of March the school year is finished in Japan and graduation and entering ceremonies are held. Traditionally many schools have planted cherry trees adding not only a colorful touch but also underlying the symbolism of these social milestones in Japanese society.
Hanami has a longstanding tradition and may have started already in the Nara period when plum trees were imported from China. When Kyoto (A.D. 794) took over as capital of Japan, the imperial court became increasingly interested in cherry blossoms. Gradually cherry blossom viewing became part of the Japanese culture and in the Edo period it was no longer confined to an activity of the nobles but spread over the country.
Ever growing popularity of Sakura
Now in modern Japan sakura is the symbol of spring and has commercially become big business. The cherry blossom is omnipresent on souvenirs, stationary, the packaging of consumer goods, in sweets and last but not least in the touristic sector.
Over the last decade foreign tourists that were lucky enough to be in Japan in the sakura season spread the word back home. More recently, it is fair to say that every travel agency worldwide working with Japan has a “Sakura Tour package” in its brochures.
Although seeing Japan’s epic scenery with cherry trees in bloom is a delight for every photographer be aware that the season fluctuates and that blossoms in full bloom are short-lived. Therefore, it is wise for the occasional visitor to consider the cherry blossoms as a bonus. Don’t despair … even if you miss is it you will still be rewarded by stunning scenery.
Cherry blossoms can be viewed not only in Honshu, the main island, but almost all over Japan. Depending on weather conditions and variety, the trees are in blossom as early as mid-March in some parts of Kyushu and Shikoku until beginning of May in Hokkaido, the north of Japan.
Since many years JMC (Japan Meteorological Agency) is regularly providing a forecast on their website when and where cherries are in bloom. In addition, a “Sakura Navi” app is available for Apple and Google Play ( Appstore / Google Play ).
Nice places to see cherry blossoms in Tokyo and Kanagawa prefecture
1) Shinjuku Gyoen (Tokyo)
This vast park is within walking distance of the nearby JR Shinjuku and subway stations and probably the most popular place to see cherry blossoms in Tokyo. There is a large variety of trees which increases the period during which one can see the flowers in full bloom.
2) Rikugien (Tokyo)
Rikugien was built around 1700 and is considered one of the most beautiful landscape gardens of Tokyo. What makes the garden particularly attractive is that in the evening the garden is light up. Less than 10 min. walk south from JR Komagome station on the Yamanote line.
3) Yamashita Park (Yokohama)
Yamashita park offers a nice walk along Yokohama’s waterfront. China town is nearby and the Hikawa Maru ocean liner as well as the marine tower offer a nice attraction if you are traveling with kids. My inside tip is to sail with the pleasant and inexpensive sea bass ferry from Yokohama station (pier is 300 meters from east exit) to the Yamashita park.
4) Engakuji (Kita Kamakura)
Engakuji is 5 min. walk from JR Kita Kamakura, one station before Kamakura. The temple dates from the 13th century and is one of the most important Zen Buddhism temples in this part of Japan. If Kyoto is not part of your trip, then it absolutely worthwhile – in any season – to make a stop on your way to Kamakura.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine is of great historical importance and one of the top attractions right in the city center of Kamakura. The long lane to the shrine has been completely renovated and is bordered with cherry trees. JR Kamakura station is about 45 min. with the JR Yokosuka line from Shinagawa station in Tokyo
6) Matsuda cherry blossom festival
This sakura festival is held annually for one month, from mid February till mid march, on the slopes of the hill Matsudayama just outside the city center. Noteworthy is that the trees cultivated here are some of the most-early blooming sakura (hayasaki) in this part of Japan. From the hill unfolds a nice panorama on Matsuda city and on a nice day Mount Fuji. It is a 20 to 25 min. walk from JR Matsuda station’s North exit. On the festival days there is a shuttle bus. More information on the website of the commune