In full bloom
When the first dainty buds appear on the trees in Japan, happiness and anticipation are in the air. As the cherry trees burst into flower, so the Japanese burst into smiles. For a brief week, everyone is at their most relaxed. Ladies don gorgeous kimonos, arrange cherry twigs in vases and browse shops for cherry-matching lipsticks. Men drink too much sake and, cranking up portable karaoke machines in public parks, break out in song. Everywhere, hanami blossom-viewing parties spread out under the trees, continuing into the evening under lanterns and illuminations. Silliness reigns, but seriousness too: expect sedate tea ceremonies and classical music in honour of the blooms.
ALL across Japan, everyone watches as local television provides updates on the progress of the weather-dependent blossoming. The wave of pink usually hits in mid-April, with the official season declared with the blooming of two trees at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. Soon, parks bring pink romance to Japan’s concrete capital, with the prime minister hosting an official hanami in jam-packed Shinjuku Park, and Sumida Park coming alive with a weekend festival, folk dancing and boating along the blossom-lined river. Ueno Park is the place to be in the evening, when lantern-hung trees throw a red glow on the partying and picnicking beneath.
It’s also worth taking a half-hour train ride to Yokohama, where the classical Sankei-en Gardens see 2,000 cherry trees erupt in fabulous display. Performances on the koto, a traditional Japanese harp, serenade the spectacle throughout April. Incidentally, Buddha’s Birthday on 8 April sees many flower festivals in temple grounds throughout Japan; Kofukuji Temple in Nara is one of the most renowned. Cherry trees aren’t the only flowers blooming. Camellia, iris, lotus and mustard flowers are abundant in temple parks, as well as early-blossoming apricot trees.
However, for sakura (cherry-blossom) traditions and cultural celebrations at their best, head to ancient capital Kyoto. Every day in April, Heian Shrine hosts an elaborate tea ceremony in honour of the blossoms, while at Daigo Temple, a hanami celebration that has been held annually since 1598 features participants in fabulous traditional kimonos. Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre runs a whole range of traditional dances and music, as well as geisha shows.
Kyoto is also without doubt simply the best place in Japan for cherry blossom profusion. Just about all of its many temple grounds and parks have cherry trees, and the walk along the Philosopher’s Path, flanking a cherry-shaded canal and leading from temple to temple, is famous. Sprawling Maruyama Park is the epicentre of the most laidback hanami; half the city turns up here to eat and gossip under the spectacular weeping cherries. According to a Japanese proverb, ‘Better than the flowers is the food’, so bring a store-bought bento box and some seasonal pink confectionary with you and tuck in under the trees, illuminated to magnificent evening effect.
This region is the heartland of old Japan, and there are further cherry displays in the venerable wooden town of Nara nearby, as well as at Mt Yoshino, where World Heritage Buddhist temples lie scattered across a hillside covered in some 30,000 blossoming trees. But don’t imagine you’ll miss out in the big cities. The Okawa river in Osaka has a four-kilometre stretch of sakura, and Expo ’70 Commemorative Park provides 5,000 illuminated trees in what many people say is one of the country’s top hanami spots.
While a government building mightn’t sound like the best place for some further pink contemplation, Osaka’s Mint Bureau throws open its grounds so that the public can admire some hundred varieties of sakura, many quite rare. From late bloomers to weeping cherries and varieties with frilly flowers or double heads, the Japanese know them all, and argue endlessly about which is the most beautiful.
If you want to be sure of a spectacular display of cherries in Japan, find a castle. Osaka Castle is planted with 4,000 cherry trees, making it another popular city spot for parties. But wherever you are, there should be a castle somewhere nearby, surrounded by picnickers on a spread of fallen pink petals. Sendai, Nagoya and Fukuoka are particularly noted for their fine displays.
Odawara Castle to the south of Tokyo hosts a festival in early April that features a children’s parade, open-air tea ceremony and blossom viewing by night. Matsumae Castle is another popular hanami location, with cherry trees not only in its parkland but extending onto the surrounding hillsides. Located on the northern island of Hokkaido, it’s one of the last places to catch the blossoms, which don’t flower here until into early May.
One of the central motifs of sakura celebrations is the transience of this spectacular floral display, which prompts the Japanese to quote melancholy poems about the fleeting nature of life and beauty. The first buds appear, and little more than 10 days later they’re already dropping off the trees and carpeting the ground in a last, fading reminder of glorious flamboyance.