Hanami (花見), or flower viewing, is a big deal in Japan. It usually refers to the cherry blossom (sakura/さくら/桜) season in late March-April, but can include plum blossom in February/March. Hanami can take a couple of forms – you can simply stroll through a grove of trees, enjoying the blossoms and taking lots of photographs of them, or more traditionally you can have a picnic under the branches. Hardcore hanami participants camp out to ensure they secure the best spot ready for when the blossoms open.
For those who don’t want to camp out in the cold, another option is to tape your family name, or the name of your company, onto your tarpaulin and trust that nobody else is making use of your spot when you want it.
On our first trip to Japan, we visited in early May, by which time the cherry blossoms were all but gone and the wisteria was beginning to come into bloom. This year, we decided to visit at the end of March into the start of April to make sure we got to see some blossom. 2012 started out very cold, so the cherry blossom in Japan was late in coming out. Most of the blossom we saw while we were in Kyoto was plum blossom. It took us a while to work this out! For anyone else unsure of how to tell if you’re looking at plum or cherry blossom, plum blossom comes in lots of shades of pink – from almost-white to deep cerise – and the petals are rounder. Plum blossom often has multiple petals as well as a lovely scent.
Cherry blossom is more delicate in appearance, and the petals are more oval with a small nick at the tip.
In Kyoto, we visited Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮) in the north west of the city. This shrine is famous for its plum trees, and we saw plenty when we went to the monthly flea market in the shrine grounds. In the plum orchard in front of the main shrine entrance there are around 2,000 trees, and then there are more inside the shrine grounds as well. As with cherry blossom, there were plenty of people taking photographs of the blossoms and of each other standing beside the trees.
The best cherry blossom viewing sites in Kyoto are Maruyama Park, Kiyomizudera Temple and Nijo Castle. We visited all three, but without much luck. At Nijo we did a night viewing, and there were only a couple of trees with blossom on them. It was difficult to tell if they were plum or cherry. Most of the trees were still ghostly skeletons in the night air.
At Maruyama Park, although preparations were well underway for the Hanami Matsuri (花見祭り) that was to be held on March 30, including park wardens sawing off stray branches so that revellers would avoid injury, very few of the trees had blossoms on them.
There were a few trees in bloom at Kiyomizudera (清水寺), but not the riot of blossom that we had been hoping for! Most of the trees within the temple grounds were stark and bare.
We had a little more luck when we moved on in our travels to Kamakura (鎌倉), where the cherry trees along Dankazura, in the middle of Wakamiya Oji Dori, were starting to come into bloom. Dankazura leads up to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Jinja, where one cherry tree in particular was attracting the attention of lots of visitors!
By the time we reached our final destination of Tokyo on our recent trip, cherry blossom was busting out all over the place. We stayed in Asakusa again, and the trees leading up to Sensoji were frothy with sakura.
We also took an evening stroll along the Sumida River, where preparations were being made for another Hanami Matsuri, and the trees were doing their best to be ready on time while a few brave souls were risking the wind chill factor to have a picnic!
A trip across to Ueno was very rewarding. Ueno is Hanami central in Tokyo. Along the main avenue of cherry trees in the park were taped down tarpaulins, very organised picnics, and plenty of recycling stations for people’s picnic rubbish. We saw a news item while we were in Tokyo that showed tech-savvy picnickers making the most of an app for Domino’s Pizza and having their picnic fare delivered by GPS.
We also tried to visit Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑) while in Tokyo, but foolishly went on a Saturday when it was almost impossible to cross the road at the entrance to the park, let alone get through the gate. So we missed out on seeing the national collection of 1,500 cherry trees.
We did see plenty of cherry blossom, though, including at Shibuya Station at night.
So as well as the more traditional and popular places to view cherry blossom, there are always opportunities to enjoy a quiet moment contemplating sakura as you go about your daily travels in lots of Japanese cities. One such opportunity for us was Sengakuji, near Shimbashi, where in the quiet serenity of the temple grounds we saw this beautiful tree: