You’ve seen the guidebooks, the airline posters, the promotional pamphlets. Besides Mt. Fuji and Hello Kitty, the iconic symbol of Japan is certainly its cherry blossoms. But sakura (as the blooms are known in Japanese) are not just a marketing gag, or even a season. Anticipating their arrival is a collective frenzy; and watching them fall reflects a sense of beauty that is uniquely Japanese. Even cartoon characters enjoy a good hanami (flower watching) session.
Beginning in March the nation becomes gripped by daily forecasts that predict when and where sakura will “open” and “peak.” Pink blobs on elaborate maps migrate from the southern prefectures eastward and then north to the tip of Honshu (Japan’s main island) before finally reaching Hokkaido. The first time I saw such a forecast on TV, I was instantly enamored with Japan. What better place to visit than a country where everyone watches the flowers?
And there’s no better place to enjoy sakura than in Japan’s northeast, where you can take in the blooms with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Each prefecture has it’s own highlights, with Hirosaki Park in Aomori a particular gem.
High on any list though is Yamagata, famous for producing 75% of the country’s cherry fruit crop (which comes from a different species of tree than the ornamental sakura). Head to Kajo Park, a ten-minute walk from Yamagata Station. The park (free entrance, open from 5 am to 10 pm) has roughly 1,500 cherry trees, most of them over 100 years old. The height of the trees will astound, as will the mass of pink overflowing into the castle moat.
Walk the trail around the inside of the moat: you’ll be surrounded by towering cherry trees on either side and inevitably will experience the delicate, poetic moments that only sakura can offer.
Next, head to the Mamigasaki River, where the barbecues are fired up and the drinks are flowing (bring your own). This is where families, colleagues, friends, and couples come to soak in the long awaited spring air and relax with the sound of the bubbling water. If the day is clear, look upstream and you may notice the enigmatic snow peak of Gassan seemingly emerge out of the sky. The trees along the river and in Kajo Park are lit up at night.
Picnickers along the Mamigasaki River in Yamagata
Before heading out of Yamagata, don’t forget to check out the historic Bunshoukan, or old seat of the prefectural government, with architecture reminiscent of Tokyo Station.
Whether by the river, in the park, or against historic buildings, there is no shortage of hanami spots, and of course photo opportunities, in Yamagata. It is the falling petals on the waters of the moat, though, that pull at the heart strings. Here you can sense the melancholic aspect of the season, and realize that it is precisely the fleeting nature of the blooms that adds to their beauty.
Official predictions put Yamagata’s peak at April 14 with a “full bloom deviation” of seven days. I’d bet on the deviation, since locals say sakura will be a bit late this year.
While you’re in Yamagata, take the chance to soak in a human chess game at the sakura festival in Tendo, just 20 minutes up the road (accessible by JR train). Tendo boasts the largest production of traditional wooden Japanese chess (Shogi) pieces. This year’s game will be held on April 22 and 23. For more information visit the official website.