The tradition of the 12th century, with the cherry blossom festival to greet the beginning of spring, is still alive. It is the best time to approach the often restrained Japanese and their way of life.
In the weeks before, the portable karaoke machines are being dusted off and entrepreneurs are reserving the best seats for the annual Hanami celebrations – a ritual that dates back to the samurai of the Kamakura period in the 12th century. At that time, the imperial courtiers paused to admire the delicate pink cherry blossoms known as sakura before gathering under the trees for picnics and poetry performances.
The flowers, which inspired thousands of poems, are revered even a millennium later. Hanami literally means “looking at blossoms”, that is, what you always have in mind at the picnic under the cherry trees. Among the elegant pink flowers, school classes, neighborhood clubs and families prepare their food and drinks on a typically bright blue tarpaulin.
Japan in a state of emergency
It is the best time to travel to Japan. At the time of Cherry Blossom, the average Japanese, who is often reserved and shy for fear of insult or loss of face, is more relaxed.
During the cherry blossom, manners are neglected and a passer-by may get a slightly drunk invitation to join a party. Such an opportunity should not be missed. And do not be afraid of the language barrier; Alcohol and general goodwill will save just about any situation.
The cherry blossom is one of the typical Japanese clichés, such as Mount Fuji and Geisha. Its flowering phase is pursued with almost religious zeal. Newspapers and television news programs are carefully reporting the onset and progression of flowering, with commentators explaining the importance of early or late cherry blossom.
In the first two weeks of April – when the weather is fine and the trees keep their blooms – some of the largest public parks in and around Tokyo and even cemeteries become the scene of a big spectacle celebrating the beginning of the end of winter and the beginning a new business and school year.
And then, when the last bloom has disappeared, Japan returns to normalcy. The time to go out in public is as short as the cherry blossoms.
Everywhere in Japan there are places where Hanami parties take place, but here are a few examples.
Ueno Park in Tokyo
The sprawling public park, to the northeast of the capital, was once part of the Kan’ei-ji Temple and became the first Western-style park in 1873. There are a number of on-site museums that are rarely visited during the Cherry Blossom season.
In the middle of the park, a wide avenue lined with cherry trees leads to branches that meet at head height giving the impression of walking through a pink tunnel. Hanami people spread out their plans on both sides of the avenue, singing and drinking until well into the evening. Then it comes as no surprise when you see a businessman falling asleep in his dark suit, covered with fallen pink petals.
Negishi Shinrin Park in Yokohama
The terrain south of Yokohama in the Negishi district was originally used as a racecourse. After the Second World War, the US military had a huge vehicle depot here before it was returned to the city in the 70s and converted into a park.
There are more than 350 cherry trees throughout the park, most of them lined up along a gently sloping hill. Others are on the shores of the lake and near the dilapidated tribune, which has been preserved as the only evidence of past use. A favorite place for families, who arrive early in the morning at weekends to set up their Hanami festival grounds.
Philosopher’s path in Kyoto
The two-kilometer route links the “Temple of the Silver Pavilion” with the district of Nazenji in the north of the ancient capital of Japan. The route follows a narrow channel lined with hundreds of cherry trees and smaller temples and shrines.
The Philosopher’s Path is named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, who meditated here on his daily journey to the University of Kyoto.
Japanese Coin Office in Osaka
The mint does not necessarily think of a suitable place to admire cherry blossoms, but the plant is located on the Yodo River and opens its doors every spring for hundreds of cherry blossom pilgrims.
Again, there are over 300 cherry trees and not less than 134 different species. This means that thanks to early and late flowering species, the party starts rather and lasts longer than elsewhere in Japan.1