Cherry blossom time in Japan

One of the most popular times to visit Japan has to be during the cherry blossom season.

This year due to the colder weather earlier in the season, the blossom was slightly later than usual, so when I arrived in Tokyo at the end of March, it was just starting to come out. Many of the trees which can be found all over the city vary in species. However, the further south you travel, the warmer climate will increase the chances of seeing the blossom at its best around this time.

Nagasaki in the south and the port of Shimizu came up trumps this year with the local population out in their thousands to experience this amazing spectacle.

A good place to start any cherry blossom experience is probably the Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo. Here you will find a whole array of cherry blossom paintings and visual displays. Some of the most famous impressions have been created by the artists Utagawa Hiroshige, Katsushika Hokusai and Togaku, who have combined cherry blossom colours, pink clouds and branches in some of their impressions The museum of modern art is also surrounded by cherry trees which makes a visit here all the more poignant.

The blossoming of the cherry trees is known in Japanese as Sakura (‘blossom’) The word derives from ‘saku’ which translates as ‘blooming’ as well as ‘smiling’ and ‘laughter’. The blossom is a sign of spring, which is a time of renewal and represents the short passage of life.

When I was there recently, I was lucky enough to see some of Japan’s most famous cherry blossom paintings including Kawai Gyokudo’s Parting Spring and Kikuchi Hobun’s Fine Rain on Mt Yoshino.

The falling of the cherry blossom is also significant to many Japanese, as the tradition of Hanami. This is when they celebrate the beauty of the cherry blossom and the short time it is around. Known as flower viewing, in olden times farmers would take part in rituals under the cherry blossom, and often prepare a sumptuous meal. Today this event is something that the Japanese still look forward to every year.

All over Japan there are cherry blossom festivals when people get together for a picnic under the trees. These can be quite spectacular, as was the one I attended in the suburbs of Shimizu when thousands of people picnicked ogether with music, food and friendship under the magnificent cherry trees at the Sumpu Castle Park on the outskirts of Shizuoka. A most impressive array of food stalls together with some wonderful musical items made for an incredible event attended by thousands of people.

However, enjoying the cherry blossom can also be a very individual experience, and so I was very privileged to be taken by my guide Ayaka Ichinose whilst in Nagasaki to a small area of cherry blossom high above the city where couples were sitting under the trees enjoying the experience in a very quiet and reflective way. Then onto the magnificent Glovers Park, where the cherry blossom was out in full bloom.

Whilst in the city of Kanazawa, my contact Keiichi Mimura arranged for me to visit the spectacular Kenrokuen landscaped gardens, where people were walking amongst the many varieties of cherry blossom together with couples who were having their wedding photographs taken.

Kenrokuen
Kenrokuen

Further north in the samurai village of Kakunodate, reached by bullet train from Akita, again the cherry trees were just about to come out along the famous banks of the Hinokinai river. Around the village were able to walk amongst the Somei-Yoshino weeping cherries.

During the season you are also able to buy special cherry blossom marshmallows in the shops and purchase a range of gifts linked to this very special event.

As well as visiting the many sites around the country, I also had the chance to find more about the fascinating city of Nagasaki with its famous Glover Gardens. A merchant adventurer, Thomas Blake Glover, was an inspiration to the city, arriving in 1859 and founding his company Glover and Co. The gardens, which have been designated a World Heritage site, stand high above the city and have spectacular views over the harbour. There have been very strong European connections with this city, including the Oura Catholic Church built in 1864.

Nagasaki clock
Nagasaki clock

Nagasaki is also the site of the second atomic explosion in Japan during the Second World War. This is remembered at a special museum and Peace Park which has a large statue dedicated to peace as its focal point. The museum includes a clock which stopped at the moment in time the bomb was dropped.

Japan is a country of contrasts, and first-time visitors will be surprised at how easy it is to navigate. Many of the signs are in both Japanese and English, and although not many people speak English, as you would imagine everyone goes out of their way to be as helpful as possible. During my stay I was privileged to visit Dawn, an avatar café in Tokyo where robots are controlled from elsewhere in Japan by individuals with severe disabilities. Not only do you have the chance to talk with them via their avatars, but you can also watch as the robots prepare your coffee. Another experience I will never forget is the tea ceremony conducted by a geisha in one of the residential areas.

Japan has an amazing train network. As well as the famous bullet train, you will also come across ‘maglev’ trains and an impressive underground in Tokyo which uses colours and numbers to navigate you around the network.

People are incredibly polite and cannot do enough to help you out. The food is a mixture of Western and Japanese culture. Noodle bars are very popular with the young, and a trip to a real Japanese restaurant is an experience in itself.

Reissue, a coffee bar in the capital, is famous for its foam carving experts and well worth a visit.

Yes, it is a long flight of up to 16 hours, but it is an experience that should be on everyone’s bucket list. One of the best times to go is obviously during the cherry blossom season, but be prepared to adapt your programme, as the dates when cherry trees are in flower can be subject to the weather. A good idea is to arrange a tour of the main cherry blossom sites around the country taking in the different islands, or perhaps book a cherry blossom cruise which will give you a chance to experience the different events and provide a snapshot of Japan. Also do go prepared for different types of weather which can range from the sub-tropical south to the chilly north.

Next steps

Interested in experiencing Japan’s cherry blossom season for yourself? Call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Godfrey Hall

Award-winning travel writer

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