There are some rightly renowned and beautiful cherry blossom spots in the world – Kew Gardens in London and the approach to the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. spring to mind – but none are more well-known than the Japanese blooms which open in late March on southern Kyushu Island and can be seen as late as mid-May on northern Hokkaido.
Unlike in other countries, cherry blossom trees grow wild along river banks and on hillsides as well as in more orderly arrangements in the streets and parks of towns and cities. Blooms can be seen out of the window on the Shinkansen bullet train between the cities, in the hills around the famous Tokugawa mausoleum in Nikko, and can be glimpsed in the gardens of well-heeled residents of neighborhoods like Aoyama and Kagurazaka in the Tokyo metropolis.
Japan’s cultural mecca Kyoto is undoubtedly the central cherry blossom hotspot, with most hotels being booked out months ahead of time as domestic and foreign visitors flock to the city. The view from the wooden viewing platform of Kiyomizu – the largest and most impressive temple in the city built up a hill in the old town of Higashiyama – is magnificent. Come early April, dozens of cherry blossom trees are in bloom down the flanks of Sannenzaka and Ninnenzaka traditional streets that lead down the hill back to the modern city. Most of the key spots in the city are open all month long simply to cope with the amount of visitors they receive.
If you can bear the crowds, then Tetsugaku-no-michi or ‘Philosopher’s Path’ is an unforgettable canal walk lined on either side by cherry blossom trees. It leads from Nanzen-ji, another of the city’s most imposing temples, to the more humble but equally fascinating Ginkakuji or ‘silver temple’ with austere raked gravel zen gardens that provide a striking contrast to the soft pinks and whites of the blooms. About three-quarters of the way along stands one of the largest and most beautiful cherry blossom trees in the country, its branches extending as a canopy backdrop for a superb photo opportunity. Japanese women often like to dress in traditional yukata or even kimonos for the event, which simply adds to the charm and beauty of the scene.
Cherry blossom season isn’t just about the blooms though. Although it’s not an official Japanese national holiday, a festival atmosphere spreads through the land as the blossom opens a few days later in Tokyo. Japanese people of all ages gather in harmonious multi-generational groups for ‘o-hanami’ picnics under the boughs of the trees in their local parks as well as public parks like Maruyama in Kyoto and Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo (closed on Mondays, as are a lot of landscaped parks and gardens in Japan). These gatherings do become quite lively by the afternoon as granddad is bound to have brought along his favourite bottle of sake, the potent Japanese tipple which (like Kit-Kats, ice cream and a plethora of food and drink products) comes in special blossom-tinged varieties at the height of the season.
There is no getting around the fact that these hotspots become more and more crowded every year. The Japanese have always loved a ‘staycation’, particularly retirees who make next year’s cherry blossom season plans as soon as this year’s season is over. Japan now sees a quarter of a million visitors from overseas, with 25,000 British people making the trip in 2015. So every step away from the most well-publicised places improves the chance of seeing the serenity and transience of the blooms as they have been contemplated in ages past. Haradani-en in Kyoto is an impressive private garden which gets a fraction of Kiyomizu’s visitors as it’s a taxi ride from anywhere. A train ride south, the expanse of Nara Park around the world’s biggest wooden temple gives everyone enough space to enjoy the blossom in relative peace and quiet. In Tokyo, the old Edo-period capital of Kamakura an hour down the bay from the big city can be mercifully uncrowded at least on weekdays, with dozens of less-visited smaller shrines and temples to duck into. Or simply be the early bird that catches the worm and go for a walk or jog before breakfast to get the blossoms unencumbered by crowds.
The smart thing for foreign visitors to do, however, is to wait until mid-April and head north. The bullet train now runs all the way from Tokyo to Aomori on the northern tip of the main island of Honshu, and there are several excellent cherry-blossom viewing spots that can be made along the way. Different varieties and tones of cherry blossom in the parks and ‘Hanamiyama’ hillside in Fukushima is cause for celebration amongst the beleaguered residents of this prefecture devastated by the tsunami of 2011. By late April, Kakunodate has one of Japan’s finest preserved samurai dwelling areas, the original buildings framed by some of the oldest and most impressive cherry blossom trees in the countries. A little further north, the grounds of Hirosaki castle have a breathtaking variety of white blossom, weeping blossom and double-layer cherry-blossom, drawing thousands of Japanese visitors every year but still relatively few foreign visitors.
And for the really intrepid traveller, the bullet train line extension through the longest tunnel in the world from Honshu to Hokkaido, will be operational by cherry blossom season this year. The first stop on is Hakodate, where hundreds of cherry blossom trees have been planted on the star-shaped Goryokaku park where a castle once stood. Visit nearby Matsumae castle down which isn’t as impressive as Hirosaki but is less crowded, and head on north to Hokkaido’s main city of Sapporo to enjoy the ‘o-hanami’ picnic scene in the central park in late May. By the time the blossom opens in the far-flung prefecture of Nemuro on the eastern tip of Hokkaido in late May, central Japan is into its rainy season and the blossom is already fading into memory.
Perhaps the most impressive account of the whole season in the English language is Hokkaido Highway Blues by Will Ferguson, in which the writer hitchhikes from Kyushu to Hokkaido following the blossom in a tale that is contemplative and full of light-hearted comedy by turns. A cherry blossom petal falls in his sake cup and his Japanese acquaintances read all manner of meaning into it – before he gets it caught in his throat and hilarity ensues. We have spent three cherry blossom seasons in Japan, and this really captures the spirit of the season – both reverential and high-spirited, recalling the Japan of old but also a celebration of youthful exuberancy (especially those ‘ojii-san’ octogenarians after a few glasses of sake). And over the course of a holiday, visitors become more than just observers, they become participators in the world’s most unmissable cherry blossom experience.
James Jayasundera is Founder and Managing Director of Ampersand Travel.