While traipsing around Japan last year, I found my visit to coincide with the beginning of the season for cherry blossoms in Tokyo. In hindsight, I wish I had booked my tickets for an extra day or two so that I could have enjoyed the season in full bloom. Instead, I only was able to experience the beginning of the season as buds started flowering.
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Regardless of that, I was fully able to appreciate the cherry blossoms as I explored Japan and especially when in Tokyo where I saw some in full bloom in my own version of hanami.
What is Hanami?
Hanami, literally “flower viewing” in Japanese, is serious business in Japan. People gather under the trees to admire and picnic under the pretty blossoms to enjoy their beauty. In parks, you can see blankets and tarps spread out beneath these trees days in advance as individuals stake claim to prime viewing locations.
The practice of hanami is said to have started during the Nara period from 710 – 794 by admiring plum blossoms. Before long, it was cherry blossoms, or sakura, that started attracting more attention and hanami became synonymous with cherry blossom viewing.
Celebrations often involve eating and drinking, playing and enjoying music. These celebrations often go late into the night called yozakura or night sakura. Because you can drink in public, it can turn into quite the party. Some specific dishes like dango and bento, are prepared for the occasion, and sake is typically drunk.
When to View Cherry Blossoms in Japan
Cherry blossoms bloom depending on the latitude that you’re at. The closer you are to the equator, the earlier in the year the blossoms will likely bloom. Late March and early April is when you’ll likely find the blossoms blooming on the island of Honshu where most of the most commonly visited cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka are located.
Cherry Blossom Viewing in Tokyo
In Tokyo, there are tons of places to view cherry blossoms. Surprisingly the city has a number of parks that allow you to get outside and enjoy fresh air. Some of the most popular locations include Shinjuku Gyoen, Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park. See other options over at Japan Guide.
Cherry Blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen
Steps from the bustling streets of Shinjuku, you can find yourself in peace and quiet at the Shinjuku Gyoen. With over 1000 cherry trees of different varieties that bloom at different times during the season, the odds of finding blooming trees are high. As I was going to be missing full bloom, Shinjuku Gyoen was the perfect solution. Wandering around the park, I spotted tons of blooming trees.
Be wary of the crowds. While there is a 200 yen entrance fee into the park, the cost is so minimal that it didn’t detour throngs of people wandering through the park to enjoy the blossoms. The trees that were in full bloom often had throngs of people surround it, vying for the best photo spot.
By the entrance, you can spot maps showing the location of all the cherry blossoms in the park. Even if they’re not all in full bloom, a walk through the park is still quite rewarding. Shinjuku Gyoen is broken up into three sections: the French Garden, the Japanese Garden, the oldest part of the park, and the English Garden, where the majority of the cherry blossom trees are located,. Each has its own personality and features.
The park is open 9 AM – 4:30 PM with last entry at 4 PM. It is closed on Mondays (or Tuesday if Monday is a national holiday), however it is open everyday during the cherry blossom season. Entrance is 200 yen.
Cherry Blossoms at Ueno Park
With over 1000 cherry trees lining its central pathway, Ueno Park is a popular location to experience cherry blossoms. Unlike entrance to Shinjuku Gyoen, entrance into Ueno Park is free and draws huge throngs of people.
It is said that the blossoms at Ueno Park typically open 1 – 3 days earlier than other spots in the city and I found this to be true. There seemed to be more cherry blossoms that were fully open with beautiful colours. At the centre of it all, a small festival area will food vendors, crafts and gifts related to cherry blossoms is available.
Ueno Park is huge and beyond the trees, there are a number of museums and temples to explore. The Ueno Zoo is also located here.
Tasting Cherry Blossoms in Japan
No, not actually eating the flowers, but rather all of the sakura flavoured speciality items. From Starbucks to McDonalds and everything in between, if you’re in Japan in the lead up to cherry blossom, or sakura, season, you’re likely to run into sakura flavoured foods.
While I was there, I tried out the sakura flavoured McFlurry. It was overly sweet and didn’t really have much flavour. It was just sweet, but the novelty of it was cool.
I had also picked up a bottle of sakura flavoured green tea which came with a cute bottle cozy to keep your drink hot or cold. Again, I couldn’t really taste the difference between regular tea and the sakura version. Sakura mochi can also be commonly found. Mochi is filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf.
Finally, while in Tokyo, I visited the Dominique Ansel Bakery and had my first cronut. By chance, they only had their specialty sakura rooibos edition of the cronut. It was filled with sakura jam and milk chocolate ganache infused with Rooibos tea. It was incredibly sweet, but somehow still seemed to balance with the savoury and crunchy part of the cronut making it one of the best things I ate in 2017.
I found it fun to see all the different variations of what sakura flavour meant and while most of them were overly sweet, there is such a thrill to taste a special edition of something.
Have you seen cherry blossoms in Japan?
Where did you go enjoy them? Did you taste any of the interesting sakura flavoured specialty items?