Ohayo Gozaimasu! Japan has given me a helluva welcome so far with the Sakura trees blossoming right on schedule in my first week in Tokyo! I spent most of my week exploring various parks and hot spots for Hanami – it’s my first time seeing the Sakura in full bloom and I’m starting to understand what the big fuss is about. It really is quite beautiful and fleeting!
Meanwhile, here’s the first post I did up for JapanTravel. It’s mostly about my experience and observations of the Hanami tradition in Tokyo. It’s honestly a bit bewildering if you are a foreigner and don’t understand the extreme passion the locals have for Sakura blossoms. They take it super seriously in Japan, with a ton of reports, coverage and updates so you know where exactly the best spots are.
Blogging on the road is hard – I think I’m still fairly excited about being abroad as a whole, so taking the time out to actually do some writing when there is a whole city to be exploring feels tough. But I’m starting to figure out my rhythms better so hopefully you see more stories soon. I have a whole lot to talk about, both Japan and my last trip to South Sumatra just before I left as well!
Visiting Japan to catch the beauty of the Sakura blooms for the first time? Hanami, literally translated as the ‘flower viewing’ season, typically happens in late March to early April and is Japan at its most picturesque, with vibrant bursts of pink and white colours throughout the city parks and countryside, creating picture-perfect moments as these small flower petals dance in the breeze.
Hanami season has become an integral part of Japanese culture. Here are three essential things you need to know if it’s your first Hanami:
Plan for a longer stay, if possible
Sakura blooming is a tenuous business – it happens at different times each year depending on a multitude of factors like the weather and which part of the country you are in. If they are an essential reason you want to visit Japan in the first place, try and stay in Japan for a longer period so there is better chance of your stay overlapping with the full blossoming period. Typically once a few trees start blooming, it takes around 3-4 days for everything to be in full bloom. Always check the cherry blossom forecasts to be certain, especially with the unpredictable weather.
There is no avoiding the crowds
Locals and tourists alike are willing to queue for their chance at Hanami as it only happens once a year, so expect any Hanami spot you visit to be packed with people. The crowds start to grow once a few trees are in bloom – it is slightly ridiculous how everyone crowds around to photograph that one blooming tree – but once full bloom hits, that number goes up exponentially, especially on the weekend. The most crowded spots I came across include Yoyogi Park near Shibuya, Ueno Park, as well as the Imperial Palace Gardens in Chiyoda.
My favourite less-crowded spot that I found was in a rather unusual location – Yanaka Cemetery. It may seem an odd choice for Hanami, but there is an avenue lined with cherry blossoms that is absolutely beautiful. Obviously, there is no picnicking or revelry since it is a cemetery, so you can admire the blooms in quiet and without too much jostling.
I’ve realised that you can find Sakura just about anywhere in Japan, and often in places you don’t quite expect to, like right next to the overhead bridge or a random blooming tree by the train track. Perhaps it is the ubiquity of the Sakura tree that makes it so popular in Japan?
Hanami party essentials if you want to sit down at the parks under the trees and do like the locals do:
- Food and drink – buy your own snacks and drinks to feed yourself while admiring the Sakura, whether it’s a fancy Sakura bento or normal snacks from the convenience store largely depends on your budget. Not all places allow picnics and parties, so check first and also remember to clean up after yourself at the end of your party
- Ground mat – keep your bottoms dry, and you need the mat to physically reserve your space. I also suggest an additional jacket because sitting down without moving for awhile in prime Hanami weather can get chilly
- Group of like-minded friends – most important for a fun time and for taking turns to reserve spots! If you’re flying solo and still want the Hanami experience, either make some new friends on the fly (look for fellow travellers or friendly folk with some space to spare!) and share their mat, or just walk around instead and explore the various hanami spots instead of getting stuck in just one location
I had the pleasure of attending two hanami parties – one organized by my hostel at Sumidagawa River near our location. I had first visited Sumidagawa on my first day in Japan, so seeing the difference as well as how they were lit up at night was pretty amazing. Also didn’t hurt that we had free sake and plum wine all night :p
My second hanami party was with the JapanTravel folk at Yoyogi Park, and talk about absolute insanity – Saturday afternoon and this huge park was just filled with people in all directions. I had been to Ueno Park and thought that was crowded, but nothing prepared me for the sheer number of heads at Yoyogi. Also important tip – go to the loo before you enter the park, because those toilet queues were crazy long from all the revellers eating and drinking in the park for most of the day. I had a 40-min queue for the ladies >_<
Happy Hanami, and don’t worry if you missed it this year, there’s always another year of new blooms to look forward to!
A version of this article was first published on JapanTravel.com for my 4-week photojournalism internship in April 2016.