In a land of revered and esteemed culture and tradition, the viewing of cherry blossoms (or sakura in the native Japanese) is perhaps the most important. The flowers permeate so much of Japanese culture, from paintings, poetry, and films; it even features on their 100 yen coin. Every year, millions of Japanese citizens track the cherry blossom front (known as the sakura zensen) as it moves across the country, from bottom to top, via nightly news forecasts from the Japanese Meteorological Agency. The blossoming kicks off way down south in Okinawa, then, like a flowery pink tide, sweeps across the archipelago, where it reaches Kyoto and Tokyo in late March/early April, before culminating in the snowy north of Hokkaido in early May. The Japanese people take this custom very seriously. They even have a name for it: hanami, a centuries-old practice of relaxing under a blooming cherry tree and taking in the transient beauty of it.
The temporal nature of the bloom is what makes it so attractive to the Japanese. It ties in with their concept of mono no aware, which is roughly translated as ‘an awareness of things’; even the life of a samurai was meant to mimic the falling of a cherry blossom, by being noble, beautiful and ending all too rapidly. In Japanese culture, sakura symbolizing the embodiment of mortality, fleeting beauty and a profound metaphor for human life can be traced back centuries. These days, the phenomenon is known across the globe. Many tourists travel to Japan in the spring to catch a glimpse of the sakura falling and join in the native festivals and celebrations. If you’re planning a trip to the East, log onto BUCKiTDREAM and see who’s ventured there before you, and where they went to view the falling sakura. Once you’re suitably inspired, whip out your own BUCKiTDREAM planner and start jotting down some travel ideas. Who knows, you might be able to follow the cherry blossoms all the way up Japan!
Even though it’s not the capital, it’s the old Imperial capital, which makes Kyoto one of the most impressive places to catch a sakura fall. You’ll want to aim to be in Kyoto from the last week of March until the third week of April, with the sweet spot falling on the first of April. Kyoto is awash with temples and shrines which can be the perfect scenery for watching the cherry blossoms; people have sat and contemplated the sakura for centuries from some of these locations. If you’re the more active sort, however, one of the best places to head is the Philosopher’s Walk in eastern Kyoto. It’s a pedestrianized path which follows a cherry-tree-lined canal, providing some stunning visuals when the sakura are in bloom. Named after the Japanese philosopher and University professor Nishida Kitaro, who is said to have wandered the canal in daily meditation, the path is now a popular recreational spot for natives and tourists alike.
For a more epic setting, head to Arashiyama, on the outskirts of Kyoto, to the west. Surrounded by mountains and dense forestry, Arashiyama is stunning at any time of the year. It features a bamboo forest, full of towering cranes, and also a monkey park, where hundreds of monkeys can be found roaming freely on the mountainside. In early April though, Arashiyama is transformed; it becomes awash with luscious pink blossoms, viewable from pretty much every angle. The area also features a large river crossing complete with traditional pleasure boats, and bicycles for hire at the local train stations. There’s an incomparable feeling of serenity at Arashiyama, despite the fact it’s only a short journey from the city center. If you’re the rambling type, a hike up one of the nearby mountains will furnish you with spectacular views of the city.
Tokyo might be considered the garish, modernized counterpart to Kyoto’s formal beauty, but there is actually plenty of traditional undercurrents running through the city’s vivid veins. There’s more than a few spots to catch a mesmerizing sakura show, and they might be in the places you least expect. Tokyo’s answer to Central Park is Shinjuku Gyoen, one of the city’s largest and most popular parks, located in the bustling district of Shinjuku. Its large, spacious green is favored by locals and tourists alike, and for avid sakura watchers, the good news is that it contains over a thousand different varieties of cherry trees. Most of these bad boys bloom during the first week of April, but for early birds and latecomers, the park also features some species of the tree that provides an extended blooming season, usually early March until the end of April.
Speaking of parks, for a more lively atmosphere during cherry blossom season, Ueno Park is the place to head. This large public park is home to Tokyo’s national museums and zoological gardens, and also is one of the most popular places to catch the sakura. Hundreds of trees line the pathway to the National Museum, and also the walkways over that bisect the large Shinobazu Pond. It won’t quite have the reverence of somewhere like the Philosopher’s Walk, but if you’re looking for an excited crowd of fellow eager viewers, Ueno Park is the spot for you.
Of course, while Kyoto and Tokyo are the two major tourist destinations in Japan, they’re not the only places in the country where you can view cherry blossoms. If you want to think a little more outside the box, and don’t mind traveling into the Japanese sticks, then there are a number of awe-inspiring settings to catch this most magnificent of natural phenomena. A short trip outside Tokyo will bring you to the shores of Kawaguchiko, where you’re afforded the rare sight of the towering Mt. Fuji framed by vivid sakura. Osaka, the next most populous city behind Tokyo, and a twenty-minute train ride from Kyoto offers more than a few desirable locations to catch the fall, the two heavy hitters being the Expo 70 Commemorative Park, which features over 5,000 trees, and the spacious, feudal grounds of Osaka Castle.
If you travel north to Hokkaido, you can afford to be a little later than usual, and get the best of the sakura around mid-May. In the main city of Sapporo, Maruyama Park and Hokkaido Shrine attract some of the biggest hanami parties in northern Japan, so you can always be assured of a great atmosphere there. Odori Park, Sapporo’s most famous slice of land, is also a prime place to catch a shower of sakura. Ultimately, you should explore Japan for all its worth during cherry blossom season, and discover your own hidden viewing spots. One thing is for sure; everyone should afford themselves the chance to see this amazing and calming display of natural beauty.
You heard us, folks – fire up that BUCKiTDREAM planner and let’s take off to the Est; don’t forget to post scintillating snaps of sakura on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.