Cherry Blossoms - known as ‘Sakura’ in Japanese, are the country’s national flower. After seeing the 2019 blossoming season I feel that I understand why.
The blooming season generally begins late March and ends early April, but this can vary significantly due to the weather occurring in the specific area. Previous seasons have been known to end in 1 day, with the first storm of Spring prematurely ending the season.
On my journey to Japan I was watching the nightly Sakura forecast on TV before my travels, and I was slightly worried I would miss the ‘full bloom’ stage as Tokyo had experienced several days of warm weather prior to my arrival. In a perfect set of occurrences - a cold front eased over Tokyo and delayed the bloom of the flowers which in-turn extended the season to approx 14 days!
With the Cherry Blossoms in full bloom, the annual flower picnics / viewing (known as Hanami) started all over Tokyo and the surrounds. Parks, public areas, and rivers all became alive with festival like celebrations.
During the season, Japanese people experience ‘Hanami’ by laying down a blue tarp and having a long lunch / drinking session under the trees. These festival styled events occur both at day and night, with the trees providing a completely different visual atmosphere as the day turns to night.
My wife told me that it is quite common for local businesses to have an office party to celebrate the season in their local park, sending the low rank employees at first-light (5am) to secure the ‘best spot’, and then the CEO and senior staff would all turn up at lunchtime for the company party.
On my journey I was able to visit many pockets of Sakura trees, with the below 3 areas really capturing the spirit of Cherry Blossom for me..
1 . OMIYA KOEN (Omiya Park, Saitama)
Omiya Koen is a huge 67-hectare park, famous for its Japanese red pines, apricot trees, and of course its large amount of cherry blossom trees. Located next to a large lake, the park also has a free zoo, large playground, and is located next to the 2,400 year old Hikawa Shrine.
We purchased bentos from the local 7-11 before heading to the park, and were surprised to see the paths lined with street food vendors once we arrived. The smells of the Japanese foods, the bustle of the park, and the amazing atmosphere of the bright Sakura above us was an amazing experience.
2 . MEGURO RIVER (Nakameguro, Tokyo)
Meguro River is probably the most famous area for cherry blossoms in Tokyo. The 7.5km river snakes through the middle of Tokyo and is lined with Sakura most of the way. The attraction comes from the numerous bridges, roads, and even trains, that intersect with the river creating excellent photo opportunities.
This site was the focus of nightly news reports as the overcrowding was causing major issues to the residents in the area. With drunks, party goers, and large crowds causing big piles of trash and blocking the roads.
I visited in the daytime and there was minimal crowd. The view was amazing as the trees lined the river as far as the eye could see. Meguro river seems to come to life at night, when the lanterns are lit and the trees glow a bright pink which is reflected on the shallow river below.
Meguro river is also a perfect location to witness the end of the season, as the petals fall into the river and it flows a bright pink for several days.
3 . TOKYO IMPERIAL PALACE (Chiyoda, Tokyo)
This was an incredibly special experience. For the final week of March 2019 the Imperial Palace allowed the public in a restricted area of the Palace (Inui Street), for a final walk to view the cherry blossoms before Emperor Akihito's abdication in April 2019.
The Street located on the private grounds of the Palace is lined with over 100 cherry blossom trees, with 30 different varieties. It was worth braving the 1 hour entry wait and the large crowds (40,000 in total on the day).
I don’t believe I will ever be able to replicate this walk in my lifetime, so it was a memorable event.
A couple of days after this visit, I also ran around the 6.5km perimeter of the Imperial Palace. Which provided another perspective of the stunning grounds. The palace is over 1.1 sq kms, and is surrounded my a large moat right in the heart of Tokyo. The perimeter of the palace is also lined with stunning cherry blossoms and glimpses of the castle-like residence of the Emperor.
As I experienced my first season of Cherry blossoms I kept wondering about the strong sentimental meaning the trees have to the Japanese.
From what I could see during my visit, I guess the connection has a lot has to do with the very brief life of the flowers, blooming only for about a week in total.
Their stunning beauty and fragility is a perfect reminder that nothing in this world is permanent, and that everything passes away at some point in time.
It's a sad but beautiful admiration of impermanence, which has been an important part of the Japanese culture and mindset since ancient times.
In Japanese, it’s called “mono no aware.” This unique mindset can be found in even the smallest things of Japanese daily life.