From the end of March to mid-April, Tokyo’s cherry blossom trees burst into bloom and colour.
It’s no wonder that cherry blossom fever grips Japan every spring, or that the cherry blossom is such a prominent feature of Japanese art. For centuries the blossoms have been featured in music, on kimono prints and stoneware, in dances and plays—and Sakura, or “cherry blossom,” is even a common name. These elegant owers are laced all through Japanese culture.
As the flowers bloom, anything that can be made in sakura flavour surely will be: sweet sakura lattes, sakura sake (sake with a delicious cherry infusion), pink and chewy sakura mochi (rice cakes), and even french fries from Japanese McDonald’s get served with a seaweed and sakura seasoning powder-although it’s a bit of an acquired taste. And during cherry blossom season, limited edition sakura-flavoured chips, alcohol and chocolate take over the shelves of every convenience store.
Once the owers reach full bloom a simple tree-lined path becomes a charming romantic corridor, or a regular garden becomes a miniature haven where one can sit among the delicate shadows of the trees. As the owers unfold, major parks throughout Japan are flooded with visitors for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing parties. In Japan, (responsibly) consuming alcohol in public is allowed in many places, and it’s common for groups to get together under the trees with salty snacks and cold cans of beer, enjoying each other’s company and the first warm days of spring. But the best part of sakura season is the festivals that take place all over the city.
Meguro River never fails to draw large crowds. During the Nakameguro Sakura Festival hundreds of trees bloom down the length of the narrow Meguro River, their gorgeous branches seeming to reach toward each other across the water. The trees are complemented by bright pink lanterns, and chatter mixed with the calls of vendors echoes on the air. No celebration of sakura is complete without a bottomless supply of snacks, and the vendors lining the river are only too happy to oblige. Seasonal sakura champagne sparkles pink in the glasses of passersby as they stroll beside the water, while on the river pale petals dust the shimmering water like confetti, adding to the festive atmosphere.
At night the lanterns are lit, illuminating the blossoms, and the crowds settle in for yozakura, or nighttime cherry blossom viewing. Many of Tokyo’s best cherry blossom spots stay open late for yozakura. Though the pink blossoms are beautiful against blue spring skies, the experience of seeing them at night might be even more breathtaking. The blossoms are transformed by the glow of the lanterns, their ghostly beauty surreal against the dark night sky.
The festival at Ueno Onshi Park is one of the most famous in the country. Although the park is crowded, the concentration of more than a thousand cherry blossom trees makes Ueno Park a prime cherry blossom viewing spot—possibly the most popular spot for cherry blossom viewing in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the park during sakura season, so be sure to arrive early to claim a picnic spot. At night, a thousand lanterns light up the blossoms from 5 until 8 in the evening.
Yoyogi Park near Harajuku may not have the same concentration of trees as Ueno Park, but it’s still a pretty active spot come sakura season. The crowd tends to be younger, and every group seems to have its own music, whether it’s J-pop blaring from portable speakers or someone playing an acoustic guitar. Groups sit spaced out on tarps playing drinking games while the cherry blossoms shiver above.
As the season comes to a close the city prays for good weather. Spring rain or strong winds will wash the petals away early, and everyone wants the blossoms to hang on as long as possible. But as all Japanese know, everything has its season, and as the last of the owers fall away people flock to the parks for one last stroll among the trees. Now most of the petals dust the ground and those that remain slowly fall, whirling from above, the saddest and yet the most beautiful part of cherry blossom season.
Though the sakura bloom just a brief two to three weeks every spring, it’s clear why these delicate pink owers are one of Japan’s defining hallmarks.
Tokyo’s Cherry Blossom Spots
A. Shinjuku Gyoen
Shinjuku Gyoen is one of the most popular spots for hanami. It offers plenty of space and a more peaceful atmosphere to enjoy the blossoms, and is especially popular with families. The trees at Shinjuku Gyoen include numerous early and late-blooming trees, making it a perfect stop through the whole sakura season. However, alcoholic drinks are not permitted inside the park, so if you’re planning to enjoy a cold beer while taking in the view, it’s best to choose one of Tokyo’s numerous other cherry blossom hot spots.
B. Inokashira Onshi Park
Inokashira Onshi Park is known for its rowboat pond, and during sakura season visitors can rent a rowboat and glide under the dappled shadows of the blossoms on the water. There are 250 sakura trees around the pond alone!
C. Kinuta Park
A less crowded spot for hanami. The wide lawns and spaced-out trees make Kinuta Park an ideal spot for a picnic under the pink canopy of the sakura trees—and entrance is free! This park is also a great choice for families with kids.
In Roppongi, the traditional grace of the sakura trees blends with the modern flash and neon of the city for a wonderful contrast. Mouri Garden, located behind Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, is the perfect place for a stroll through the trees.
E. Chidori-ga-fuchi Park
At Chidori-ga-fuchi Park the branches of cherry blossom trees hang gracefully over the moat of the Imperial Palace, creating a rare scene that will draw out the photographer in anyone, from selfie enthusiasts to professionals. Once the sun sets the petals are backlit for nighttime viewing, and the petals reflect ghostly white off the black mirror of the water.
The road to nearby Yasukuni Shrine is lined with stalls selling traditional Japanese street foods and, of course, cold beer. The crowds and delicious fried and savoury smells give the area a wonderfully festive atmosphere.
The Kokyo (or Tokyo Imperial Palace) east garden is a photographer’s paradise. The distinct Japanese architecture of the palace framed by the country’s famous cherry blossoms makes for photos steeped in Japanese iconography.
G. Ueno Onshi Park
H. Sumida River
At Sumida River, take a stroll along the river-side or board a traditional yakatabune boat for a charming cruise trip. Cruisers can relax and watch the sakura trees drift by as Tokyo Skytree tower soars in the distance.
All photos courtesy of © JNTO unless otherwise noted