Cherry blossoms — or sakura — are undeniably a highlight in the Japanese seasonal landscape. A time to leave winter behind and welcome the arrival of spring. The peak of cherry blossom viewing ("hanami") in Tokyo runs from end of March to early April, depending on the year and its complex algorithm of meteorological conditions. There are countless cherry blossom viewing spots in Tokyo, you won’t miss them.
The city loves to celebrate these delicate and fragrant flowers. If you don’t mind crowds, one of the most popular neighborhoods during sakura time is the Ueno Park (JR Ueno Station on the Yamanote Line or the Keihin-Tohoku Line; Tokyo Metro Ueno Station on the Ginza Line or the Hibiya Line). There, you will meet a sea of blue picnic sheets with their festive crowd of cherry blossom enthusiasts.
If like me you prefer more laid-back, unhurried grounds, why not spend an afternoon at the Yanaka Cemetery? Yanaka is a haven in the heart of Tokyo, one of the many parks — in fact it feels more like a park than a cemetery — where one can wander around without hearing the sound of a car. The Yanaka cemetery used to be the largest in Japan at the time of its creation as a public Tokyo cemetery in 1874 as a result of the government’s separation of Buddhism from Shinto. It covers over 100 thousand square meters and hosts about 7000 graves, some of them of famous occupants such as Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of Japan, or novelist Yukio Mishima.
Sakura-dori (Cherry Blossom Street) runs through the center of the cemetery and as its name indicates, is lined with gorgeous cherry trees. There are hundreds of cherry trees in Yanaka, you will find more of them as you troll along the narrow pathways framed by arrays of old tombstones, leaving you with a feeling of being in a friendly and very picturesque labyrinth. Aside from the hanami crowd you are likely to come across a few stray cats (many of them have settled for Yanaka!), a policeman or two (the cemetery has its own tiny police station) and bicycles loaded with brooms and buckets (graves need to be maintained and the cemetery is indeed huge, carrying equipment from one end of the park to the other can be tough).
Having picnic parties in a cemetery might seem like an odd thing to do at first, but in Japan there is absolutely nothing disrespectful in celebrating hanami among tombstones. It is a way of paying respect to the deceased by sharing a good moment with them, chatting and recalling memories, raising a can of beer to life and health, and feeling connected with our loved ones.
Last time I wandered around the cemetery’s stone paths during cherry blossom time I witnessed the most spectacular petal storm as the wind rose at sunset. It was a magical moment that I hope you’ll be lucky to experience this year during your own hanami party, wherever your favorite spot should be. And maybe you’ll want to go back to Yanaka in autumn to admire the majestic golden ginko trees!
Access: JR Nippori Station on the Yamanote Line, South Exit, and walk up the stairs on your left.