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Japan is famous the world over for its magnificent cherry blossom trees and the festivals that celebrate them each spring. Cherry blossom festivals feature prominently in Japanese culture, having been celebrated for several centuries, and they are convened all over the country.
There are many different varieties of cherry tree in Japan, and some bloom for only a couple of weeks in spring. The seasonal spectacle is celebrated with hanami, the traditional custom of cherry blossom viewing.
The cherry blossom season itself is relatively short. Full bloom (mankai) is usually reached within about a week of the first blossoms (kaika). Another week later, the blooming peak is generally over and blossoms begin falling from the trees. Strong wind and rain can cut the blossoming season even shorter.
The most popular type of Japanese cherry tree, sakura, can be found all over the country. There are, however, different varieties of these trees and they bloom at different times across the island.
In Okinawa, cherry blossoms normally begin to bloom in January, but in the Honshu region, they only reach their peak in late March to early April. In Hokkaido, cherry blossoms are normally in full bloom in May.
The blossoms usually appear in Tokyo and Kyoto between March and April, depending on the weather earlier in the year.
Cherry blossom festivals take place in different regions of the country. Most are held from March to May, though a few regions organize festivals as early as January and February, depending on their location. The dates for these festivals are usually determined with reference to cherry blossom forecasts, and vary from year to year.
Because cherry blossoms are beautiful but fleeting – the blooms not lasting more than two weeks at most – they have become symbolic of the impermanence of beauty. Cherry blossoms have often featured in art and literature to depict the Japanese concept of mono no aware, "nothing lasts forever."
Hanami, the ancient tradition of going to enjoy the blooming of cherry blossoms (sakura), dates back more than 1,000 years to when aristocrats enjoyed sakura and wrote poems inspired by it. Although hanami literally means, "viewing flowers," it indicates cherry blossom viewing, in particular.
Today, cherry blossom viewing is most closely associated with people having a good time. They drink and eat, making the entire tradition of blossom-viewing much like a picnic under the trees. It's common for people to bring home-cooked meals, make barbecued food, or buy take-aways for the special occasion.
Oftentimes, thousands of people make their way to the parks to participate in these activities. Finding the best places for picnics and parties can become quite competitive. Many people go to the park early in the morning, or even a day in advance, to make sure they have a nice spot!
The gorgeous flowers are the main attraction of the season, but many traditional Japanese performances are also presented during the festivals. Joining a tea ceremony under a cherry tree can also prove to be quite the memorable experience.
It's good fun too to visit festival vendors who sell various foods and souvenirs, such as regional crafts and specialty food from different regions.
There are many places in Japan where one can enjoy the cherry blossom season and each celebrates the festival in its own unique way. Below we have included some of our favorite spots for experiencing hanami.
Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) is one of Tokyo's most popular parks and is definitely worth a visit. Located just a few minutes by foot from Shinjuku Station, the park boasts luscious lawns, meandering paths, and relaxing scenery, that makes for the best escape from the busy city center.
In spring, Shinjuku Gyoen becomes one of the best places in Tokyo to see cherry blossoms. It is home to a large number of cherry trees of more than a dozen varieties. From late March to early April, more than 400 of these trees bloom.
In addition, the park has numerous early and late-blooming cherry trees that provide an extended cherry blossom-viewing season (mid-March to late-April) for those who miss the main season.
Hours: 9:00 to 16:30; admission: 200 yen.
Ueno Park (上野公園, Ueno Kōen) is a large public park next to Ueno Station in central Tokyo. The park grounds were originally part of Kaneji Temple, which is one of the city's oldest temples.
The park is also famous for the many museums found on its grounds, including the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum for Western Art, and the National Science Museum.
Today, Ueno Park is one of Tokyo's most lively cherry blossom spots with more than 1,000 cherry trees lining its central pathway. The cherry blossoms are usually in bloom during late March and early April and attract very many hanami parties.
Hours: 9:00 to 17:00; admission: free.
Sumida Park (隅田公園, Sumida Kōen) is a public park in Sumida and Taitō, with the nearest subway station being Asakusa.
Over 600 cherry trees blossom in Sumida Park towards the end of March. The riverside park is one of the most picturesque hanami spots in the city, and many come armed with picnics and mats to sit under the cherry trees and enjoy the season with friends.
Cherry blossom viewing can also be enjoyed from boats that cruise along the river. The cherry trees are lit up in the evenings and food stands are available for visitors.
Hours: 24 hours; admission: free.
The Philosopher's Path (哲学の道, Tetsugaku no michi) is a stone path through the northern part of Kyoto's Higashiyama district. It runs parallel to a canal that is lined with hundreds of cherry trees. Usually, in early April these trees explode with color, making this a great place for enjoying the cherry blossoms while taking a peaceful walk.
The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
Hours: 24 hours; admission: free.
Kiyomizudera (清水寺, literally "Pure Water Temple") is one of the most celebrated temples in Japan. It was founded in 780 AD on the site of the Otowa Waterfall in the wooded hills east of Kyoto, and gets its name from the waterfall's pure waters.
Kiyomizudera is best known for its wooden stage, jutting out from its main hall, 13 meters above the hillside below. This stage affords visitors a beautiful view of the countless cherry and maple trees below, that bloom in a sea of color in spring and fall.
Unfortunately, Kiyomizudera's roof will be under construction from February 2017 to March 2020, so access to the stage may be limited.
Hours: 6:00 to 18:00; admission: 400 yen.
Arashiyama (嵐山) is a popular tourist district in the western outskirts of Kyoto. The area has been a popular destination since the Heian Period (794-1185), when nobles would go there to enjoy the beautiful natural surroundings.
Arashiyama is particularly popular and busy during the cherry blossom season around early April and the second half of November, when the cherry blossom and fall color seasons peak together.
Hours: 24 hours; admission: free.
Trees along the northern shores of Lake Kawaguchiko provide splendid sights of Mount Fuji in combination with the lake and cherry blossoms. The most attractive spot for viewing the blossoms is the lakeside promenade east of the Kawaguchiko Music Forest.
Hours: 24 hours; admission: free
Most visitors to Japan choose to travel during the cherry blossom season, so it can get very busy with some hotels booking up 12-18 months in advance. Unsurprisingly, the best viewing spots in most parks are full with crowds of locals and tourists.
The sheer number of visitors to Japan during this time of year results in a 30%-50% increase in guided tour, transport, and accommodation costs.
Our advice is to experience the season of cherry blossoms in Japan, but to make sure to book everything well in advance.
Experience the beautiful season of the cherry blossom in all its splendid glory by allowing us to plan carefully the best itinerary for you and your families. There's much to see during the season and Asia Highlights will help ensure that you make the most of this age-old festival.