There is more than a passing reference to the cherry blossom or the blooming Sakura tree in the Japanese flower viewing tradition. The custom of drinking Hanami under a Sakura tree that was started by the elites of the Imperial Court soon transitioned into a royal passion that even the Samurai embraced before it spread to the common people. To Japan, the cherry blossom (aside from Chrysanthemum) goes beyond its significance as a national flower because the blooming season of the Sakura tree among other species of the Prunus Avium is a time for celebration. Just like the clouds they symbolise which form a metaphor for the transient nature of life, the blooming season of these exquisite flowers kicks off in January in Okinawa, peaks by the end of March and the beginning of April when it reaches Kyoto and the capital, Tokyo. They further progress northwards moving into higher altitudes and landing in Hokkaido. The annual forecast of the cherry blossom dates is a decider of a lot many things including family holidays, flower-viewing parties, visits to shrines and parks, and Hanami festivals outside of flagging off the tourist season in Japan.
The season peaking by the end of March and first half of April is most significant from a cultural perspective, and a trip around this time of the year is perfect to pick up this essence. While visitors flock to view these talcum pink blooms popularly around Fuji Five Lakes, Maruyama Park, Himeji Castle and Mount Yoshino, there is a host of lesser-known places too that open up an equally incredible scenery.
Of the more than 1000 Sakura blossom venues across the country, here are some of the top picks.
Fuji Five Lakes
Mount Fuji creates a majestic backdrop for the Chureito Pagoda that brings in photographers regardless of the season. But come April and the pagoda seems to be sitting atop a cloud of cherry blossoms that suffuses the landscape with its dainty pink hue. The morning hours get the snow to glint over Mount Fuji in a certain way just as the gentle powdery blossoms fill up the canvas while fringing the pagoda rather artistically. The place is a brisk walk from the Shimo-Yoshida Station; also the admission to Chureito Pagoda is free. Round it up with a visit to Honshu, a volcanic island whose waters give off the most phenomenal reflection of its pink surroundings.
The 1000-odd Sakura trees surrounding Himeji Castle burst into life between late-March and mid-April transforming this historic site into the country’s most regarded cherry blossom venue. With all the delicate pink fringing the castle’s white wooden walls creating a veritable white landscape that it a delight to capture in your camera lens, you won’t regret this trip to Himeji. The place is a quick bus ride from the Himeji Station which is well-connected to Osaka, Tokyo and Hiroshima through the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen. Enjoy Hanami or flower viewing from outside the castle, or pay a small fee to get into the castle grounds for a keener perspective. Not to mention, you can even explore the castle and learn about its history.
Located to the north of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district, the Philosopher’s Path is an old-world stone walkway that winds along a canal lined with cherry blossom trees in varying shades of white, pink and scarlet. This two-kilometre stretch follows Japan’s most renowned philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, who strolled down the path and practised meditation in its serene surroundings. You can take a walk on the stretch in about half an hour and observe the Sakura blossoms dramatically change hues as you take in a keen wind floating up the canal. Lying between Nanzenji and Ginkakuji, the closest subway station at Keage is just a kilometre away.
Takato Castle Park
An extremely unique destination to watch the more than 1500 Kohigan cherry trees burst into baby pink blossom. The Takato Castle Park that keeps up this age-old Hanami tradition is among Japan’s premier cherry blossom hotspots teeming with visitors come April. The celebrations are marked with a cherry blossom festival that sees the coming up of stalls, organising of activities and some wonderful light decorations to compliment the mood of the event. You can also examine the Takato Castle ruins from up close while you go about looking for some unique perspectives to photograph the site. Pick a weekday if you wish to explore in peace. You can take the train from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station to Okaya, change to a local train and disembark at Inashi Station. Takato Castle Park is quite close to here.
Among Tokyo’s highly sought-after Sakura blossom spots, Shinjuku Gyoen is a vibrant park with as many as a thousand cherry trees exploding into blossom between late March and early April every year. The lovely lawns complement the serene pale pink backdrop created by the cherry trees that you forget you are still in the heart of the city. A hub for the Sakura Matsuri festival that brings in hoards of visitors, photographers and artists capturing the gorgeous cherry trees on their canvas, it’s truly stunning to see the Japanese capital come alive in a manner that makes it a unique cultural phenomenon. From Shinjuku Station in central Tokyo on the Yamanote Line, the park is a brisk 10-minute walk.
Hirosaki with its 400-year-old Hirosaki Castle in the background and a moat fringed with lush pink Sakura trees make it a stunning destination to enjoy the Japanese cherry blossom season. The 2600-odd cherry trees in the Hirosaki Park burst into blossom every spring creating a dreamy ambience for a boat ride on the fortified castle moat whose waters turn thick with the fallen petals of the pink cherry trees. Wait until sundown and watch the lights come up from behind the trees only to turn it into a magical landscape of white and blue. From the Hirosaki Station, the Hirosaki Castle is a brief bus ride away.
A rather remote location to view the vibrant cherry blossom, Miharu Takizakura in the Fukushima district in the hills outside the Miharu town is also the most unique. Don’t go expecting to see an entire wilderness of cherry trees bursting with blossom, because you are going to find just one tree hunched over with marvellous creamy pink flowers. The cascading effect of its flowers is owing to the fact that this is one of Japan’s greatest cherry trees and is popularly referred to as the ‘waterfall cherry tree’ or the ‘weeping cherry tree’. A sense of antiquity comes about the moment you arrive at the site and you know you are looking at something that is at best a thousand years old.
A premium cheery blossom location in Tokyo Midtown’s Roppongi area, this one is held in the heart of the city amid its sky-scrappers in a modern city building. Walk down the 200-metre stretch of the Sakura avenue which wears a unique look post-sunset when the trees are dramatically lit up. The feeling is quite incomparable to be among glass and steel high-rises and yet take in this unique phenomenon of nature, photograph them and appreciate the ephemeral beauty of life. Roppongi being in the centre of Tokyo is extremely accessible from where ever you are staying in the city and is a wonderful place to spend some time and understand the importance of Hanami to Japan’s culture and tradition.
Expo 70 Commemorative Park
Osaka’s most acclaimed cherry blossom venue, the Expo 70 Commemorative Park with its over 5000 Sakura trees heralds the pink flower season unlike any other. The collection of cherry trees at this park is considered one of the highest concentrations in all of Japan. The blooming cheery trees explode into your consciousness from the time you enter the park and seem to trail you and crowd you in any direction you turn. You can’t get enough of these dainty white flowers as they droop from lower branches or linger over your head from the higher ones creating quite an atmosphere. Imagine spending a wonderful spring afternoon in their midst.
Japan’s first-ever cherry trees were planted here more than 1300 years ago on the frosty slopes of Mount Yoshino. Today there are over 30,000 cherry trees of varying hues that range from white, ivory, dull pink, bright pink to soft reds and cherry reds. Casting a pinkish-white glow over the surrounding countryside, Mount Yoshino can be read as a historical spot to view the fascinating cherry blossom. As you scale up, you will cross temples, parks, shrines all cloaked in shades of pink and white and red making it quite the venue if you are a photography enthusiast. Choose a time between late-March and the first half of May to make the most of the cherry blossom season. Between the Yoshino Station and Naka Senbon, there are shuttle buses operating every half hour. Bring out those walking shoes and hat and see the place where it all began.
Japan is bristling with Sakura venues, but it makes all the difference to the time it with the blooming season of these dainty pink flowers.