Sakura, the cherry blossom, heralds the arrival of spring in Japan. Boughs upon boughs of blossoms decorate the sky in pale pink, their delicate silhouettes no larger than a thumb. Beneath the sea of flowers is the sea of blue plastic mats, where Japanese people gather to eat, drink and chat while soaking up the spectacle.
The annual hanami (flower viewing) celebration dates back to the Nara period (710-794 AD), but it was the deeper pink and purple plum blossoms, not cherry blossoms, that initially drew admirers. Japanese envoys had observed the custom among Tang dynasty intellectuals in China and brought it home with them. Over time, the Japanese practice increasingly became linked to the more delicately shaded cherry blossoms. During the Heian period (794-1185), court nobles began to plant wild cherry blossoms in the then-capital city of Kyoto, and Emperor Saga threw lavish imperial hanami parties.
Hanami gradually became a collective practice across Japan – and a big draw for visitors. The trick is timing it right : within as few as 10 days, the radiant pink petals fall off and decay, a reminder of the ephemeral beauty of life and the importance of living in the moment. This epiphany, and the flower-viewing practice that has inspired it, continues to hold a very special place in Japanese culture. Here’s what to know before joining in the festivities.
If you’re travelling in Japan during cherry blossom season, don’t hesitate to hold a hanami party like the locals, but do so while respecting proper etiquette. Most parks are open for hanami in designated areas. People come early in the morning to claim the best viewing spots; be modest when you take your place.
Bring a mat that is proportionate to the number of people in your group – it’s a major faux pas to spread out unnecessarily. Don’t leave your mat unattended once you settle down, or it will be taken away by park keepers.
Keep in mind that the beautiful cherry trees are delicate. Don’t sit on the roots or hang anything on any part of the tree. And never touch the petals nor shake the branches. The beauty of the blossoms is best admired from a distance.
In Japan, the weather in spring is unpredictable. Bring an extra layer in case you need to keep yourself warm. If you opt for yozakura (nighttime viewing), don’t forget hand warmers and blankets.
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Try the hanami dango, a tricolour mochi skewer made specially for the occasion at wagashi (a traditional Japanese sweet) shops. Dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867), the white, pink and green colours of the sweet sticky-rice balls signify the last snow of winter, sakura blossom in spring and the Asian mugwort of early summer respectively. Craving more? Pick up a colourful hanami bento lunchbox, available at convenience stores and decorated with sakura-shaped plastic ornaments.
To toast your experience, do as many locals do and bring along some beer or sake. You will be surprised by the playful side of the Japanese after a drink or two. After the party, you will also see them return to ‘dutiful mode’ immediately, tidying up the space and taking all their belongings away, leaving no rubbish behind.
Cherry blossoms over Tokyo's Meguro River
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Cherry blossoms in Kanazawa, Japan
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Cosy galleries, boutiques and cafes abound in Nakameguro, but if you’re here for the blooms, nothing compares to the sakura extending for two kilometres along the Meguro river. Each spring, part of the riverfront is lit up at night for a dazzling yozakura experience.
This spectacular sakura-lined ‘tunnel’ is the go-to destination in Nagoya for a romantic stroll under a giant pink canopy.
This temple is famous for the extravagant 1,000-person hanami party held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), a warlord during the Sengoku period. It is prized among the locals as the number one temple for cherry blossom viewing in Kyoto despite being away from the city.
Located in Kanazawa, also known as ‘little Kyoto’, Kazuemachi Tea House Street is where you can immerse yourself in historical architecture. The flower petals scattered on the Asano river form a pink blanket that exudes picturesque charm.
Hokkaido Shrine, the largest temple in Hokkaido, is home to more than 1,400 cherry trees, including the local species, and over 250 plum trees. Both bloom in early May to create a truly magical spectacle.
This story was originally published in March 2019 and was updated in February 2020. Hero image: Shutterstock