Chasing Cherry Blossoms in Japan

The fleeting cherry blooms herald spring—and festive picnics under the trees
March 15, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

Every spring, the parks, riverbanks, and mountainsides of Japan blush pink with cherry blossoms—sakura, the heralds of the season, and perhaps the nation’s most celebrated flora. They bloom brilliant and beautiful, but fleeting—just a few days later, their petals carpet the ground.

The riverbanks of Japan blush pink with cherry blossoms in the spring. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

The display is breathtaking to behold. “I have yet to see anyone not be completely delighted and amazed by the sight of a park full of cherry trees in full bloom,” Julia Maeda, founder of bespoke tour company Tokyo Personalized, said in an email interview.

From afar, the blossoms resemble “a mass of soft pink clouds. As you start to approach the trees, you notice the beauty and delicacy of individual blooms, the way the light filters through the trees. If the wind blows and the petals start to swirl in clouds, it is a magical experience.”

Flowergazers of all ages delight in the season. (Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images)

A Public Affair

As the cherry blossoms burst forth from their buds, so too do the people of Japan. The streets buzz with life as people gather to participate in “hanami,” the traditional custom of “flower viewing.”

The tradition began as an elegant affair restricted to the imperial court, consisting of elaborate viewing ceremonies, singing, dancing, feasting, and drinking. Meanwhile, farmers celebrated their own version, welcoming with food and drink the spring and the guardian of the rice paddies, who they believed descended from the mountains on cherry blossom petals. Over time, the two traditions merged, spread to the rest of society, and evolved into what hanami is today.

Now, hanami manifests as often raucous picnics. In cities, families, friends, and coworkers flood parks, gardens, and riverbanks to gather under the cherry trees, laying out blue plastic tarpaulins that overflow with beer and sake, bento boxes, and assorted snacks.

Japan bursts into bloom as people gather to participate in “hanami,” the tradition of “flower viewing,” admiring the cherry blossoms and going on picnics under the trees. (Keith Tsuji/Getty Images)

Real estate comes in high demand. Companies send their most junior employees to stake out a spot early in the morning and hold the space until the evening office hanami. (Left to their own devices, Maeda said, “it is not unusual for them to be completely drunk, and quite possibly asleep, by the time their colleagues arrive.”)

Maeda fondly recalled partaking in hanami when she first arrived in Japan as a British expatriate over 20 years ago. “We would not stay on our own sheet for very long,” she said. “Neighboring parties would delight in hailing the foreigners over and sharing their goodies with us. By the end of the night, we would have become friends with half of the park!”

The parties often stretch into all-day affairs. In the evening, paper lanterns strung through the trees turn them into glowing pink canopies, and sprays of flowers frame a brilliant moon.

Hanami is an all-day affair, with picnicgoers feasting, drinking, and celebrating into the night. (Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images)

Enduring Symbols

Cherry blossoms have been revered in Japanese culture since ancient times, and feature extensively in art, literature, and folklore. Their exquisite but ephemeral beauty makes them a symbol of the impermanence of life, a reminder of mortality.

The warriors of ancient Japan borrowed from this symbolism. The samurai identified with the cherry blossom because the flower fell at its prime—an ideal death—and imperial soldiers were commanded by the emperor to “fall like beautiful cherry petals after a short life,” according to anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, in a 2009 lecture at the Library of Congress. In World War II, kamikaze pilots painted cherry blossoms on the sides of their planes and took branches with them on their one-way missions.

In World War II, kamikaze pilots painted cherry blossoms on the sides of their planes. (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

Since then, however, cherry blossoms have lost those darker connotations, Maeda said. Their ephemerality instead persists as a reminder that life is short but beautiful, and should be lived mindfully.

The flower has also endured as a symbol of spring and reproduction. In fact, cherry blossoms were used in early agrarian cosmology to predict the rice crop, Ohnuki-Tierney explained in her lecture. According to folk belief, the powerful mountain deity descended on cherry blossom petals to become the guardian of the rice paddies each spring. Beautiful blossoms in the spring foretold a plentiful rice crop in the fall.

Fittingly, cherry blossom season coincides with the beginning of the Japanese calendar year. As students start their first day of school and employees their first day at a new job, a backdrop of swirling sakura sings of hope, renewal, and fresh possibilities for the future.

In this season of renewal and new beginnings, a newly married Japanese couple enjoys the cherry blossoms in full bloom. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images)

Catching the Blooms

As the season nears, the Japanese enthusiastically track the cherry blossom front, or “sakura zensen,” as it sweeps its way up the country. It starts with an early bloom in southern Okinawa in January or February, before making its way across Japan, with blooms usually peaking in late March to early April, and ends in northern Hokkaido in early May.

Predicting exact bloom dates is a tricky science. Colder weather can delay flowering, warmer can prompt an early appearance, and heavy rain can cut a blooming period short; altitudes also come into play. This year, the Japan Weather Association has forecast a first bloom in Tokyo on March 22 and in Kyoto on March 25.

As the front progresses, Japan swells with visitors—nearly 4.8 million in 2017, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization—vying for a glimpse of the elusive bloom.

Public parks swell with visitors—and cameras—trying to capture the short-lived blossoms. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

For travelers who want to view the cherry blossoms at the most popular sites, especially in large cities like Tokyo or Kyoto, Maeda recommends planning up to a year in advance, as accommodations go fast. She also cautions that given the unpredictability of the weather, and the fact that the flowers only stay open for about a week before falling, bloom-seekers aren’t guaranteed to catch them.

Those who do, however, witness an entire nation swept up in a craze. Convenience stores churn out seasonal snacks and drinks, from cherry blossom beer to onigiri (rice balls) tinted pink.

Sakura mochi, a sweet rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf, is a popular springtime sweet. (Aon168/Shutterstock)

But in the midst of all the merrymaking, the ancient traditions and meanings behind the blossoms are not forgotten.

“Many feel that they are more relevant than ever, as people are increasingly removed from the natural world by the digital world that so many of us live in,” Maeda said. “To be reminded of the impermanence of life, the fleeting nature of it, and for nature to make us stop and see the beauty around us for a short time is a valuable thing.”

Can’t make it to Japan this spring? Here‘s where to see cherry blossoms in the U.S.