One of the biggest draws to Japan for tourists is the season of cherry blossoms or sakura (桜・さくら). It has become almost another tourist attraction, which draws millions of tourists every year. From south to north, the country is dyed pink and white colors. It’s undoubtedly the most awaited season (despite allergies).
Surely you have seen millions of photos of beautiful places full of cherry blossoms in Japan, and you may have heard of the word hanami, one of the words that Japanese people use most in spring. But do you know what hanami is or what hanami means in English?
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What is Hanami?
The word hanami (花見・はなみ) in Japanese is composed of the kanji “flower” (花) and “see/watch” (見), so hanami in English is quite simple: contemplate the flowers. Although the word refers more specifically to sakura.
If something characterizes the Japanese it’s that they really know how to enjoy small things and nature. They give a lot of importance to the ephemeral and to live every moment or season to the fullest. For example, in October there is the momiji-gari that consists of going for a walk or excursion to enjoy the redness of the leaves and in spring there is the famous hanami. Momiji-gari is easier to enjoy because it lasts several weeks, but for example, the hanami lasts only a few days since it’s done just at the moment when the cherry blossoms are at their maximum splendor, and these flowers tend to fall a few days later. But precisely because the beauty of the flowers is so fleeting, it makes the whole experience even more special.
Foreign tourists aren’t the only ones who are attracted to the cherry blossom season in Japan. In spring parks and gardens in Japan are full of Japanese having a picnic, enjoying cherry blossoms with family, friends, or co-workers. This is what is known as “go for hanami” or “do hanami,” not only to contemplate the flowers while you are on the way to work or school but to meet with the important people in your life and enjoy a walk or picnic under the flowers with no other expectations or needs in mind.
It’s a scene that appears in many anime, manga, or doramas. You have to go very early in the morning if you want to get a good place, (especially if you’re going on the weekend) and people usually stay until the afternoon, before it starts getting dark and cold.
Quick History of Hanami in Japan
The History of Hanami might be much longer than you thought: long before Emperor Saga held the first cherry blossom viewing party in 812, the flowers were revered in Japan as representing a goddess.
The word ‘sakura’ itself appeared in the Nara Period (710-794) and is contained in Japan’s oldest existing collection of poetry, the Manyoshu.
‘Sa’ was written as the word ‘god’ (神), and particularly referred to the god of rice paddies. ‘Kura’ represented a pedestal used to honor a god with offerings of food and sake. When cherry blossoms bloomed, it was a sign that the god had come down from the mountains and it was time to plant rice.
At this time, hanami (which literally means looking at flowers) was done in the Chinese tradition with the viewing of plum (ume, 梅) blossoms. One hundred years into the Heian Period (794-1185), Japan ended the practice of sending envoys to China to study its culture and technologies, opening the way for Japan to foster its own culture and set the premises of the history of hanami.
Emperor Saga held the first sakura-viewing party, complete with food, music, and poetry writing, after being struck by the beauty of a particular cherry tree at Jishu Shrine, which is currently part of the Kiyomizu Temple complex. From 831, it became a regular event at the imperial court and cherry blossom hanami spread among the aristocratic class—the Tale of Genji includes such a scene.
Two huge hanami gatherings sowed the seeds for the en masse style of hanami that we enjoy today. In 1594, shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi held a five-day hanami party for 5,000 in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. Four years later, he held another hanami bash for about 1,300 people at Kyoto’s Daigo Temple, where he had 700 cherry trees planted.
The cherry blossom and hanami are now so ingrained in Japanese culture that it’s hard to talk about one without mentioning the other. It’s safe to say that if you visit Japan any time in spring you will be overwhelmed by cherry blossoms, either the real ones or fake ones that adorn ads, store displays, art, and anything you could (or couldn’t) think of.
Read Also: Packing List for Spring in Japan
What to Bring to a Hanami Party
Want to participate in this exciting tradition and hanami in Japan? While hanami can consist of one person having a drink under sakura trees on a whim, a few preparations for bigger parties can make the event more special and enjoyable. Many hanami supplies can easily be found at 100 Yen shops like Daiso.
Here are the basics for your sakura watching party:
- Tarp/Picnic Sheet – Different sizes are available depending on your group size.
- Disposable plates, cups, utensils – Hanami is a picnic; after all, these will help share your food and drinks.
- Garbage bags – While hanami is an occasion to enjoy, following the rules of the park or area is important. Make sure to clean up after yourselves after you’re finished. Don’t ruin nature for the next person.
- Paper towels and wipes – There is bound to be a spill sometime during the hanami, be ready to clean things up.
- Kairo – With the hanami season beginning in March, temperatures may not quite be warm yet. Japan’s convenient heat packs can keep you warm while you enjoy your time.
- Food and drinks – Many parks and streets usually have vendors selling drinks and treats, especially if there’s a cherry blossom festival happening, but buying food and drinks beforehand can save some money for those on a budget. Check out convenient stores like 7-11 or Lawson for tasty but quick hanami foods.
How to Have the Perfect Hanami Party
- Get there early. In famous parks like Ueno or Yoyogi, the spots under the cherry blossoms are often quickly taken. To prepare for this, some groups do not hesitate to designate someone to reserve a spot by coming early in the morning and placing a tarp.
- This is particularly true when companies want to celebrate hanami – then it usually is a junior member who is sent out in the morning to reserve a nice spot. There are also other things to keep in mind for any first-timer when looking for a hanami spot. This includes:
- Do not stay close to the walkway. This is especially true for famous parks or gardens like Yoyogi and Ueno Park: the crowd is usually huge and one can be easily overwhelmed by the masses of people.
- Do not stay close to trash cans. Even if it might be fine in the morning, the smell will become quickly unbearable, especially on sunny days. Also, some sites do not have garbage bins. In that case, take your garbage when you leave and dispose of it at home.
- Look for a nearby toilet beforehand. And be sure to line up early. The waiting time can sometimes be more than 30 minutes.
- Bring warmer clothes. The weather can still feel quite chilly, especially at the end of the day, when night falls.
When to enjoy the Hanami?
As I explained above, unlike what happens with momiji, which appears slowly and stays for several weeks, cherry blossoms appear and disappear relatively quickly. In the map below you can see the dates of when they begin to bloom, approximately. However, the best viewing time is not until 5 -7 days after the first bloom when the cherry blossoms reach their maximum splendor. The full blooming period can be enjoyed for about one week, depending on weather conditions like rain or frost.
But even knowing this, it’s difficult to accurately predict the best time to see cherry blossoms since the first bloom date depends on weather conditions leading up to spring.
Also as you could probably guess, it depends a lot on what area you are in Japan. Normally flowering begins from south to north of the country, unlike the momiji, which is from north to south. This means that in the southern zone the cherry blossoms begin to bloom before, usually for March, while in the northern zone they bloom towards May, being there the last place where you can find them.
See our 2023 Cherry Blossom Forecast to get the most up-to-date info for when cherry blossom season will be.
Where to enjoy the Hanami?
Japanese cherry blossom view is so famous partly because of the large number of places throughout the country where you can enjoy this beautiful spectacle of nature. Some of the places are truly beautiful and leave you breathless. Unfortunately, many of the best sites are far from the main tourist cities, or a car is needed to access so may not be the best for those on tight schedules or who have a lot of travel plans already. On our website, you can find many articles with several of the best places to see cherry blossoms in Japan. However, in this article, I’m going to focus on Tokyo and Kyoto, since they are the two main tourist cities and on a short trip probably you don’t have time to go far places. But don’t worry, Tokyo and Kyoto have also really beautiful places so you can enjoy the main tourist spots and the cherry blossom viewing at the same time! If you have time I would definitely head out to Mount Fuji for some spectacular view, or up to Hokkaido, Tohoku Prefecture, or really anywhere you can reach in Japan.
If you’re traveling extensively around Japan, look into the Japan Rail Pass to help cut down on the expensive train tickets.
Tokyo is a large metropolis full of huge skyscrapers, neon lights, train stations, and people. So, it’d be understandable to think it’s not the best place to see cherry blossom trees, but that is not true. In fact, the capital of Japan has a lot of beautiful places to enjoy cherry blossoms or go for a hanami.
This park features lush lawns and over a thousand cherry trees. The area is unique in that it is home to both late and early blooming trees. This makes it a prime spot for visitors who arrive a week too early or too late for the main sakura-matsuri festival.
See Also: Best Cherry Blossom Festivals in Japan
Located in the heart of the city, Tokyo’s high-rise buildings provide a startling contrast to the park’s peaceful natural surroundings. Shinjuku Gyoen is a mere ten-minute walk from Shinjuku Station, one of the central Tokyo train stops, part of the circular Yamanote line. Japan Rail Pass holders can ride all Yamanote line trains with no limits, during the duration of their JR Pass.
No article on cherry blossom viewing spots in Tokyo would be complete without Ueno Park. During the hanami season, the park is visited by thousands of families, company workers, and students all looking to take in the beautiful pink blossoms. Since the park can get crowded during this time of year, we recommend meeting up with your party at Ueno Station rather than in the park itself.
See Also: Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo
Meguro River is flanked by around 800 cherry trees on both sides, stretching for about 3.8 km. At night, lanterns are lit, making for a very atmospheric hanami experience.
Like in Shinjuku Gyoen and Yoyogi Park, it’s a little difficult to find a nice plot to set your tarp down, but the blossoms are just as beautiful if you want to simply take a stroll down by the river. The closest stations to Meguro River are JR Meguro Station or Nakameguro Station on the Tokyu Toyoko Line.
Thousands of visitors come every year to enjoy hanami at Yoyogi Park. With around 500 trees, primarily of the Somei Yoshino variety, visitors can come and purchase snacks like yakisoba at stalls or catering carts set up throughout the park, and many people also bring their own food and alcohol to enjoy in the shade of the trees.
During the cherry season, the lines for the public bathrooms become quite long, so either make sure you find a toilet near the park that you can scurry off to or keep the libation imbibing to a minimum.
Read Also: Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo
The ancient capital of Japan is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the country. In spring, the combination of cherry blossoms and Kyoto’s historical places makes it one of the most popular and beautiful cities for cherry blossom viewing in Japan. There are many places where you can enjoy cherry blossoms, but with a trip of two-three days to enjoy the city, there is no time to see them all and maybe you are wondering which are the best places. Next, I will show you my 5 favorite places to see cherry blossoms in Kyoto.
The Philosopher’s Path is a quaint stone path that takes you through the north of Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. The walkway follows a canal that is lined by hundreds of cherry trees showcasing vibrant shades of pink, red, and white. The 2-kilometer path was the place where Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan’s most famous philosophers, used to walk and practice meditation.
The Philosopher’s Path runs between Ginkakuji and the neighborhood of Nanzenji and takes around 30 minutes to walk. The closest subway station is Keage which is 1km away. If you want to start on the south of the path, get off at Miyanomaecho.
Read Also: Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto
The first cherry trees were planted on the slopes of Mount Yoshino over 1300 years ago. But the landmark is much more than simply Japan’s most historical place to view the cherry blossom. It has a unique, magical atmosphere and a picturesque beauty. There are over 30,000 cherry trees of many types and colors. Visitors can also see various idyllic shrines, temples, and parks along the way.
Approximately 300 cherry blossom trees are planted at Heian Jingu Shrine, which was established in 1895. The shrine is very impressive with its vermillion pillars and green roof. It appears even more gorgeous when combined with the pink of the cherry blossoms.
Maruyama Koen is Kyoto’s oldest garden, which opened in 1886. This Japanese garden, which has fountains and wisteria flowers, boasts a wide variety of scenery changing with the four seasons. Japanese-style restaurants, cafes, and an amphitheater with the capacity of 3,000 seats are also available in this garden, making it a place of recreation for the citizens of Kyoto. In spring, about 800 cherry trees bloom, and the garden is filled with tourists. Don’t miss the famous shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree), or Gion Yozakura (“night viewing of the cherry trees in Gion”). The illumination emphasizes the beauty of the Japanese cherry trees in bloom.
Toji Temple is home to Japan’s tallest five-storied pagoda for a wooden structure. The temple’s official name is Kyo-o-gokokuji Temple. It is a registered World Heritage Site.
Around 200 beautiful cherry blossom trees bloom here. Be sure to take a photo with the five-storied pagoda in the background to capture a traditional Japanese essence.
The Fuji Zakura, the cherry tree Toji Temple is most known for, is a shidare-zakura (weeping cherry) tree that is over 130 years old. It towers 13 meters tall and has an artistic beauty that is especially wonderful during the illuminations from late March to early April.
Why Are Cherry Blossoms So Important in Japan?
So What sets sakura apart from a blossoming ume or wisteria tree? The answer lies in the petals’ brief lifespan – shortly after the flowers have fully developed, the wind starts whisking them away. Sitting under a sakura tree, it is impossible not to be reminded of the brevity of its splendor. The passing of time is what defines the sakura philosophy. The small, fair petals are not only a beautiful natural spectacle but a metaphor for life itself.
This acceptance of the nature of things is what defines the philosophy behind sakura and the very reason why, in the end, it was the cherry and not the plum which has inspired countless poems, pictures, songs, dances, novels, and various other works of art and thought.
Nothing seems more reminiscent of human mortality than the sakura – and we hope you enjoy the kind of “wabi-sabi” moment during your own hanami in Japan!
Other Ways to Enjoy Cherry Blossoms in Japan
While you can definitely stroll through a park to enjoy the cherry blossoms, there are other ways you can get into the spirit of spring. Here are some typical things you can do to enjoy the cherry blossoms in Japan:
Sakura Festivals: These festivals provide food stalls, pretty lanterns, and even entertainment. They are held around peak blossom season and they are a perfect way to view the blossoms and enjoy the spring weather. Sometimes these are combined with hanami to create a hanami festival.
Yozakura: This refers to cherry blossoms that are illuminated at night. They offer a different take on the flower viewing experience.
Hikes: The best chance of seeing some quiet cherry blossoms in their natural habitat is to head out into the mountains for a spring walk. Pack a picnic, and it’s the best way to welcome spring.
I hope my article has helped you to know and understand more about the sakura season in Japan and the hanami meaning. If you’re in Japan this spring, don’t miss the chance to go for a picnic in a park or join some of the tours I have proposed and enjoy the hanami like a local!
Are you ready for Japan?
- Book Your Flights– To find the cheapest flights, flexibility is a must. Some great options are Google Flights for the calendars to find the cheapest options, Skiplagged, and Skyscanner. For more options see our resources page. For Japan, check flights for both Tokyo Airports (Haneda and Narita), as well as Osaka (Kansai).
- Find Transportation- Buy your JR Pass for your bullet train and inter-city travel before you leave home. Research a Suica card, the public transportation card you can either buy before or as soon as you arrive.
- Book Your Accommodation– Look at Booking.com, Hotels.com, or Expedia for hotels in Japan. You can also look at AirBnB or VRBO as we’ve had great luck finding inexpensive, large, and clean homes to rent.
- Book Tours and Experiences- Check Klook or Viator for some of the best tours and attractions for a great price for experiences like Tokyo Skytree, TeamLab Borderless, and Universal Osaka. For Tokyo Disney Resort, check my guide here.
- Stay Connected– Order a pocket WIFI for airport pickup if you’re with a family or group, or order a SIM card just for your phone. Check out our guide to staying connected here.
- Buy Travel Insurance- I always recommend World Nomads for insurance. It’s better to protect yourself in case of mishaps. Learn more about World Nomads in this FAQ post.
- Pack Your Bags– Check out my packing lists, or my favorite travel gear to help you remember all of the essentials.
- Learn About Japan– Learn about Japan with guidebooks like Lonely Planet, or, shameless plug, search around my site for more info.
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