Latest Posts

Japan, Sakura and Hanami

In the collective imagination, Japan is very often associated with the flowering of cherry trees, which takes place between March and May, from southern Kyushu to northern Hokkaido. In fact, cherry trees start blooming as early as January on the Okinawa archipelago, and there are several hundred varieties of flowers in Japan and around the world. Most of the time we will be talking about the flowering of cherry trees here, but we will also deliberately confuse it with the blooming of plum trees, similar, and which occurs a little earlier in the year.

In Japan, “sakura” are awaited each year and their blooming is followed on Japanese television. This tradition of celebrating the arrival of spring dates back several centuries, and continues nowadays thanks to the Japanese attachment to the nature that surrounds them. Respect for this nature is closely linked to the two main religions of the archipelago, Buddhism, which arrived from China, and Shintoism, the traditional religion of the Japanese.

Each year, the country raves in front of these cherry trees which herald the arrival of spring, but above all the renewal of nature and therefore of life. The Japanese call this concept the “hanami“, literally the contemplation of cherry blossoms. There is behind this flowering a whole symbolism of life and death, taking into account the ephemeral beauty of these flowers.

Spring is a very pleasant season in Japan, with temperatures usually between 15 and 20 degrees, and sunny dry weather. It is therefore a good time for a trip to the land of the rising sun, although you will obviously come across a lot of tourists who also come to admire the cherry blossoms. Either way, you can’t miss this magnificent spectacle that Japan offers in the springtime, and the specific atmosphere of the period that emerges across the country.

Staying focused on the island of Honshu, and with my own experiences, let’s explore the most beautiful spots to admire the blossoming of Japanese cherry trees.

Tokyo

For a very long time, my dream was to see the cherry blossoms in Japan. This was the goal of my first trip in 2018, in March. Arriving in Tokyo, I was lucky enough to fall at the best time of flowering, when the flower buds were at their peak. My first contact with the sakura was in Shinjuku, and more specifically in Gyoen Park, where I had finally realized my dream. I had just traveled a little over 9000km to experience this moment and feel all the atmosphere that emanated from it.

By a beautiful sunny day, the Tokyoites had come in large numbers to picnic under the trees. With friends, family or colleagues, everyone came with their bento to admire the show of the cherry trees which sported pretty colors ranging from white to dark pink. These are typically Japanese scenes, full of emotions, that we are not used to seeing in France or in Europe, or even in the rest of the world. Notice to photo enthusiasts, this park can occupy you for several hours, between its cherry trees, its ponds, its carp, its tea house, its bridges, its tropical greenhouse garden and other traditional Japanese gardens.

Gyoen Park, Shinjuku

Another interesting spot in the capital, the gardens of the imperial palace in Chiyoda, in the heart of Tokyo. Residence of the Emperor and Empress, you won’t be free to visit, but will have to follow a predefined route in advance. Nonetheless, this visit is worth it if you want to discover the ancient site of Edo Castle, where beautiful walls still exist today. Following this route, you will come to the Chidorigafuchi moat, which is for me the most beautiful spot of cherry blossoms in the capital. These trees, several hundred years old, are gigantic, and their branches full of flowers fill the landscape with immaculate white. A very pleasant walk along the water, where you will see the Tokyoites enjoying a romantic paddle boat and having their picture taken under the flowering trees. A bucolic landscape in the heart of one of the largest megalopolises in the world is also what makes this city full of paradoxes so charming.

The ancient site of Edo castle
Chidorigafuchi moat

The last big spot in the capital that I had the chance to visit, Ueno Park, located north of Tokyo, in the district of Taitō. Here too, as in Gyoen, you will see many tarpaulins on the ground that are used to host the picnics of the Tokyoites, which come as much for the cherry trees as for the food stalls that stand there. Take advantage of the size of the park to stroll quietly under the trees and taste the local specialties. This park is popular with Japanese on weekends, so prefer the week, and early enough in the day, to visit it. If you go there in the evening, the show of the lanterns in the trees is just magical.

The main entrance of the park
Try local food

As you can see, there are plenty of places to enjoy cherry blossoms in Tokyo, and it doesn’t even stray too far from the heart of the city. It is therefore ideal if you are in a hurry and do not plan to stay too long in the Japanese capital. This is obviously a non-exhaustive list here, and there are many other spots in Tokyo, the city teeming with parks and gardens. There are also many cherry trees that decorate the streets, giving them a lot of charm and giving them a peaceful atmosphere.

The following places will give you a nice overview of hanami in Tokyo:
• The banks of the Meguro River, in the borough of the same name, with its 800 cherry trees that form a corridor above the water
Yoyogi Park, in the district of Shibuya
Kinuta Park in Setagaya District, with several hundred plum and cherry trees blooming within weeks of each other.
Yanaka Cemetery in Taitō Ward.
Nakano street, in the borough of the same name, where trees follow each other for about 1km.
• The banks of the Shakujii river, in the Nerima district.

Kyoto

The flowering of the cherry trees is particularly pleasant to observe in Kyoto. It’s a quieter city than Tokyo, and its residents take the time to observe the nature around them. As in the capital, the cherry blossoms occur towards the end of March, and it is at the maximum at the beginning of April. It obviously depends on the climate and the temperatures that interfere with the buttons. Do not stay in one place for too long, otherwise you may miss out on sakura from other regions, as this bloom is fleeting and the flowers fall from the trees quite quickly. It also creates a unique spectacle to see these thousands of petals soar and swirl in the air. The bodies of water covered in pink and white flowers are absolutely beautiful and so photogenic.

If you are passing through Kyoto and your goal is to see the sakura, you cannot miss the Path of Philosophy. For me, this is the most beautiful cherry blossom spot in the whole Japan. Located in the north of the city, it begins around the Zenrin-ji temple and ends a little before the Ginkaku-ji temple, the silver pavilion. Put on good shoes because this path bordered by hundreds of cherry trees runs for almost 2km. The spectacle is beautiful there, and you will certainly come across many Japanese families dressed in yukata, those summer cotton kimonos that can be rented. You will also come across many photographers and other painters, who have come to immortalize the beauty of nature in its raw state. Photo sessions under the trees, you will have to arm yourself with patience because more and more tourists are familiar with this path, which has become a must-see during spring in Kyoto. You can also stop in one of the many cafes that line the path, to drink tea and taste a pastry. You will inevitably be charmed by this natural atmosphere and by this very local and typical side that the place exudes. The atmosphere is particularly charming and pleasant.

2km walks under the cherry trees
Japanese family wearing yukata

Another charming place to observe beautiful cherry trees, the historic districts of Gion and Pontocho, in the heart of Kyoto. The small alleys of these districts will immerse you in medieval Japan, where traditions are still tenacious, and where you might be lucky enough to see a geisha or a maiko, an apprentice geisha. It is forbidden to take pictures of them. Either way, this is where you’ll see many cherry blossoms beautify the streets and border the Kamogawa River. During nightfall, the locals like to meet on the banks of the river, under the flowering trees, for dinner or simply to drink a beer. A magical moment of intimacy, perfect for lovers. In the alleys of the historic districts, it is the lanterns of the restaurants that light up the sakura and give them beautiful purple hues. It will be especially appreciated to take a walk there after dinner, before returning to the hotel. A unique show in Japan, that should not be missed under any circumstances.

Kamogawa during nightfall
When lanterns light up Sakura

The historic temple area, located in the east of the city, is another interesting area to see the cherry blossoms. Overall, this area runs from Kiyomizu-dera temple in the south to Yasaka-jinja temple and Maruyama park in the north. You will see many cherry trees decorating the temple gardens and the pedestrian streets of Ninenzaka and Sannenzaka. A real dive into imperial Kyoto, with its wooden houses, tea houses, restaurants and other boutiques that seem to have remained the same for several centuries. This is where you can find the Starbucks, which takes place in a former tea house, barely visible from the outside, and which also retains its original interior. Besides the large number of tourists in this area, don’t be shocked to see some restaurants turning away foreigners. I personally came across a restaurant with a “no foreigners” sign. It’s part of the Japanese paradox, welcoming but eager to preserve its history, culture and origins, and that’s also why we love this country so much.

Picnic under the cherry trees
Geisha and Maiko in the historical area
A traditional garden of the area

Overall, the city of Kyoto, better integrated with nature, sees its landscape of cherry trees more sparse than in other more modern cities like Tokyo. Except the Path of Philosophy, which concentrates a maximum of trees, the city of Kyoto does not identify large concentrations of cherry trees. It is an enamelled landscape that you will have to discover as you walk through the streets and neighborhoods, exploring one of the most beautiful cities of the Japanese archipelago.

Here are some other interesting places to visit around Kyoto for the Hanami celebration:
The rise of Keage, right next to the station of the same name, which is an old railway line lined with several hundred cherry trees.
Kyoto Botanical Garden, with the lovely Nakaragi path, along the water.
• The Shōsei-en garden.
• The park of the Tō-ji temple.
Takaragaike park.

Osaka

Osaka is one of the largest cities in Japan, but it has some very beautiful places to observe the cherry blossoms, and urbanization has not prevented nature from blending into the landscape. A true historical witness, Osaka Castle proudly sits in the heart of the city, and its park welcomes a lot of beautiful cherry trees that bloom from the end of March. The sakura and castle combo works wonderfully, and you are sure to get some really nice shots. Between visiting the castle, then visiting the park, you can easily stroll for several hours, without forgetting to bring your bento for a picnic both under the trees, but also along the water and the moat of the castle. One of those very beautiful and purely Japanese moments.

Osaka castle
One of the largest Sakura of the park

If the walk doesn’t scare you, cross the Kyōbashi Bridge and walk along the left bank of the O River to Kema Sakuranomiya Park. Several kilometers of walking await you in the company of no less than 5,000 cherry trees. A magical landscape illuminated every spring evening until 10 p.m. The atmosphere that reigns there at sunset is amazing, and you will hardly leave this so pleasant place, conducive to meditation and appeasement. For picnic fans, don’t hesitate to stop at a konbini to buy something to dine by the river under the illuminated cherry trees. Once again an experience you can only have in Japan. And for photographers like me, thousands of shots in perspective.

Sakura along the O river
Illuminated cherry tree during the night

End of this little tour of the hanami in some of the main Japanese cities, at least the most touristic and most often included in the itineraries. Celebrating the renewal of life with the onset of spring dates back centuries, and it is a long-lived tradition rooted in Japanese mores. Linked to the Shinto and Buddhist religion, contemplation is a central element of life, which is also why the blossoming of cherry trees arouses such enthusiasm in the land of the rising sun, and much less elsewhere. And yet these are not trees endemic to the archipelago, there are cherry trees in almost all countries with a temperate climate. Spring is a popular season for tourists, and you will see hotel prices double or even triple in many cities across the country. You will therefore need to book everything in advance, and assume that the main tourist sites will be crowded. But I wouldn’t tell you how pleasant this season is, and how beautiful it is, both in terms of landscapes and its incomparable atmosphere.

Before to leave you, I’ll make a list of the best places to celebrate Hanami in the rest of the country. It’s a quick turn, because without a doubt Japan has hundreds, maybe even thousands. Following the direction of flowering, from south to north:

Miyajima Island, in Hiroshima Prefecture.
• The Korakuen Garden, in Okayama City.
• The park of Himeji castle.
• The banks of the Shukugawa river, in Kobe.
Mount Yoshino, in Nara Prefecture.
• The Kenrokuen Garden, in the city of Kanazawa.
• The banks of the Yamazaki River, in the city of Nagoya.
Inuyama Castle Park, in Aichi Prefecture.
Hanamiyama Park, in the city of Fukushima.
Hirosaki Castle Park, in Aomori Prefecture.
Goryōkaku Fortress Park in Hokkaido Prefecture.

Todāi-ji temple, Nara

As always, I hope this article has made you want to travel to Japan and discover all that this beautiful country has to offer. Please feel free to comment on the article and share it on social media if you know people who are passionate about Japan. Also find all the photos on my Instagram account @hugoatokyo …Sayonara ! 

Latest Posts

Don't Miss