The spring months in Japan are famous for the delicate pink buds that bloom on trees throughout cities, towns, and neighborhoods. The appearance of these cherry blossoms, or sakura, is a nationwide indication for everyone to appreciate this once-a-year natural occurrence by grabbing a sweater, a picnic, some family members, and friends, to spend time outside under the colorful bursts along the tree-lined lanes. This “cherry blossom viewing”, or hanami, is a wonderful cultural practice- no matter where the trees might be, along a sidewalk, surrounding a park, Imperial grounds, lining a river, there will be blankets and foldable lawn chairs and laughter and merriment.
When you walk Tokyo during spring, you almost take it for granted that sakura are there. The blossoms are so cheery and idyllic, seemingly perfect, adding splashes of color across the drab colored commercial-looking buildings, it is hard to remember that they are fleeting. A full bloom will last a couple weeks if you’re lucky, but if there is any inclement weather then that period is shortened dramatically. Those frail little buds can’t withstand much in the way of rain or wind.
The Imperial Gardens, on the grounds of the Imperial Palace, have specific private areas that are open to the public for a short period during the spring every year. I didn’t find the private grounds to be particularly extravagant when we visited, but the public grounds around the Palace were full of sakura in bloom. So don’t worry if you aren’t in town for the open-to-the-public dates, you don’t need the special grounds to see something unique!
My favorite hanami spot is along the Meguro River in Tokyo. You can walk along either side of the river and feel like you’re in a movie sequence – surrounded by sakura on either side of the river and pink lanterns (with writing that ostensibly appears to be full of beauty and wisdom but in reality, is typically advertising for a bar or pachinko palor. But don’t let the unromanticism of the ads get you down!) strung along the trees that alight at night. At the slightest breeze you can see some of the dainty blossoms twirling down into the smoothly running water. You’ll see dozens of girls dressed in kimono having amateur photoshoots among the natural setting.
Among the show-stopping nature are dozens of food stalls and shops. Several of the stands have traditional snacks like mochi and takoyaki (balls of fried octopus) as well as sakura-themed and flavored items. AND because Tokyo has no open-container laws, you can even buy a glass of champagne for your stroll along the riverside!
The sun was shining, everyone was in a good mood, the pink blossoms seemed to know it was their purpose to bring people out of the winter-induced glaze.
One thing I realized as sakura season was in full-swing was that there are the lovely and famed viewing locations, but cherry blossoms truly are all over! I decided to walk to a different grocery store than I usually frequented and was greeted by the Sakai River (much wider than the Meguro, but just as beautiful) lined with hundreds of sakura. I didn’t have to spend 45 minutes on a train to access Tokyo for a fabulous sakura experience, I just had to take a walk in my neighborhood.
I really tried to take advantage of this possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience of living in Japan during the world-famous cherry-blossom season by spending more time outside, walking to work instead of riding the train. I was not in a great mental place at the time and taking an extra half hour every day to walk along this special and beloved springtime joy helped to center me and ground me in the place I was in. I may have had to force myself outside but I did not have to try to enjoy myself once there.
I hope whether you are in Japan or not, you can enjoy the wonderful sakura and take some time for hanami yourself! Where are your spring blossoms?