Not a forest fire but a flower fire! Spreading from south to north through Japan’s Kyushu, Honshu and Hokkaido islands, cherry blossoms or sakura conflagrate in pastel pinks to banish the shivering winter and herald the joys of spring.
In Japan, this natural event is celebrated as hanami or cherry blossom viewing. It all began in the late 8th century when upper classes gathered to rejoice in the new year’s harvest and mark the start of the rice planting season. By the 16th century, the custom had spread to all citizens and has since been handed down in the care of subsequent generations.
Traditionally, a hanami consists of an outdoors party beneath blooming cherry blossom trees during the day or at night. Family and friends indulge in tasty treats, sake and beer as cherry blossoms, illuminated by sun or moon, float down from above.
When to go
Cherry blossoms bloom for a limited time – usually between one and two weeks – and when is very much dependent on the climatic conditions at the time. Generally, sakura bloom from late March to early May, starting in Kyushu and steadily progressing northward until the season ends in Hokkaido.
How to hanami
Step 1 – Where?
The first and probably most important step is to decide where to go. Do you want to stroll and view the cherry blossom trees or settle in for a picnic beneath a tree?
Step 2 – Supplies
If you plan on a picnic, bring a blanket to stake out your territory beneath your chosen tree. For those who seek comfort, buy seat pillows at one of the 100 yen stores like Daiso. It might still be a bit chilly at night, so bring along a light jumper or jacket. Hanami is about pleasuring all the senses; don’t forget to stock up on some sakura-themed treats such as sakura-mochi, a soft pounded rice cake or ball with sweet bean paste wrapped in a salted cherry leaf. Swill down the yummies with sake, beer or even umeshu or plum wine.
Step 3 – How?
This may seem tougher than it sounds. Many people go early in the day to stake out their claim by placing a tarp or blanket on the ground. It is highly irregular and rude to venture where someone else intends to picnic. When you find a spot, don’t picnic at the base of the tree, on walkways or in roped off areas. It is customary to take your shoes off prior to sitting down on the tarp or blanket.
Step 4 – Responsibility
Popular venues will most likely have rubbish disposal bins. If not, it is obviously good citizenship to remove any trash from the site when you leave. Also make sure you have all your property!
Where to go
Himeji Castle is regarded as one of the three most picturesque castles in Japan. The scenic appeal is further bolstered by some 1000 cherry trees – a riot of pink in a perfect setting.
Osaka Castle is another stunning set for about 600 cherry trees and almost 1300 plum trees. This, along with spots in Kema Sakuranomiya Park, is perfect for a hanami picnic. The Japan Mint Head Office opens its grounds during sakura season enabling visitors to view over 100 blooming cherry tree varieties while strolling through a viewing tunnel.
Yoshinoyama, south-east of Osaka, is considered the best cherry blossom viewing point in Japan. More than 30,000 cherry trees swirl from the mountain top down into valleys, like a pink river bursting through its banks.
Arashiyama in Kyoto is world renowned for its emerald bamboo forest. However, in late March to early April the Togetsukyo Bridge provides a striking vantage point from where to view the cherry trees along the river banks. Maruyama Park is another outstanding Kyoto-based hanami destination. It is home to a large weeping cherry tree of the variety shidarezakura, surrounded by smaller cherry trees and illuminated at night.
Nagoya Castle boasts weeping cherry trees and also some less common varieties. The Path of Four Seasons along Nagoya’s Yamazaki River is lined with hundreds of cherry trees in a one kilometre stretch.
Lake Kawaguchi combines cherry blossom viewing with a peak at the towering Mt Fuji. Roughly 300 cherry trees surround Kawaguchiko. Another scenic vantage point is Chureito Pagoda, which is seemingly choked by a sea of pink during sakura season with the white peak of Mt Fuji a reminder of spring’s transient nature.
Tokyo favours hanami picnics, which is why Ueno Park, Sumida River Park, Inokashiri Park, Shinjuku Gyoen and Aoyama Cemetery are so popular among the local population. Ueno Park is almost always packed and many of the 1200 cherry trees are illuminated at night. The Tokyo Skytree form a perfect backdrop for cherry trees in the Sumida River Park, while visitors to Inokashiri Park can row or paddle their way past branches straining under the mass of pink blossoms.