No sooner did we see in the New Year than I can feel April fast approaching us. With April and the coming of a new spring comes my favourite time on the Japanese calendar, Hanami season!
For those new to Japan who may not have heard of this occasion, Hanami literally means, “flower viewing”. It is the collective term for the parties held in public parks and other places across Japan at this time of year when people gather to view the emergence of the cherry blossoms on Japan’s world famous “Sakura” trees.
Photo : weenie dog on Flickr
As the blossom is dependent entirely on the temperature and prevailing weather conditions, the exact time varies from year to year. Also, the general temperature trends mean that the blossoms tend to begin in the southern areas like Kyushu and Chugoku first, before later spreading to Kansai, Kanto and then finally Tohoku and Hokkaido.
However, the cherry blossoms are notoriously short lived, meaning that once the blossoms have emerged, one has a window of only 2 or 3 weeks to schedule that Hanami party.
So how does a Hanami party work?
Basically, you get together with your friends, bring as much food and drinks as you can, head to a local park or other place that has plenty of blooming Sakura trees, get your floor mats out, sit down and enjoy the view as you bask in the beautiful view and good company of friends.
As someone who was born in Scotland, it would be remiss of me to pass up an opportunity for a bit of drinking, eating and general merriment, so it won’t surprise you to hear that Hanami season is one of my favourite times of the year here in Japan.
So, where are the prime sports for hosting your Hanami party?
Japan certainly has no shortage of options, but here are my personal top 5, based on both my own experiences and the recommendations of friends and colleagues.
1) Osaka-Jo Koen (Osaka Castle Park), Osaka
Photo : Loïc Lagarde on Flickr
This is where I enjoyed Hanami last year and no doubt thousands will once again flock to this huge park this coming April. Covering several acres, the park offers not only ample opportunity for viewing Sakura trees, but the image is further accented by the imposing figure of Osaka Castle high atop a hill in the centre. The castle, complete with its deep moat and shiny rock face presents a stunning backdrop to the proceedings. The Castle’s former occupant, 16th century Warlord Hideyoshi Toyotomi was a known lover of the Sakura trees and back in his time may well have partaken in a Hanami or two in that very same area.
So, if you like your Hanami with an additional touch of splendour and historical significance then Osaka Castle Park is the place to be.
2) Kamogawa (Kamo River), Kyoto
Photo : Kimon Berlin on Flickr
Kyoto is one of Japan’s most visually stunning cities and it really isn’t easy to choose just one place to enjoy a Hanami there. However, in the end I went with my own personal experience once again. Last year I enjoyed a very pleasant afternoon sitting on the banks of the Kamogawa with one of my good Japanese friends. She lives in Kyoto and had been telling me for quite some time about the very simplistic beauty of the Kamogawa.
Indeed, it may seem unremarkable at first, but with spectacular mountain backdrop in the distance, the peaceful gentle flow of the river’s waters and its relative close proximity to Kyoto’s Kawaramachi shopping district and other important areas, Kamogawa is a great place for those who want a Hanami that offers a bit of tranquillity without straying too far from the big city.
3) Ueno Koen (Ueno Park), Tokyo
Photo : Usodesita on Flickr
One of my earliest memories of Tokyo is the beauty of Ueno Park. When I first visited Tokyo for a vacation and Kendo training camp back in 2005, I stayed in a Ryokan in nearby Todaimae, just 7 minutes or so walking distance from Ueno Park. The park itself is a prime viewing spot for Sakura trees during the Hanami season. And while you are there, why not visit the pond in the centre of the park complete with its beautiful swans and ducks and pedalo boats. The park can get very busy during the prime viewing season though, so be sure to get there early in the morning and scout out your spot well ahead of time.
If you’re still sober after your Hanami, then why not take a short walk to the nearby Ueno Zoo. Situated within the park, it is one of Japan’s most beautiful zoos.
4) Moerenuma Koen (Moerenuma Park), Sapporo, Hokkaido
Photo : Rogerio Lira on Flickr
This park, situated on the outskirts of Sapporo City is perhaps not the city’s most famous place to view cherry blossoms, but it is one of the most pleasing to the eye.
Designed by the noted artist Isamu Noguchi, Moerenuma is a place where nature meets high art, to collaboratively create a truly unique Hanami experience. The park combines elements of artistic expression with natural beauty to showcase the very best elements of Hokkaido’s unique flora and fauna. It is also worth noting however, that due to the noticeably colder climate of Hokkaido, the Sakura in this area tend to blossom a bit later than the rest of Japan, usually in mid to late May as opposed to early to mid-April for the likes of Osaka and Tokyo.
5) Nishi Koen (Nishi Park), Fukuoka, Kyushu
Photo : かがみ～ on Flickr
As the former home of Kyushu’s ruling lords back in the feudal times, Nishi Koen offers a little bit of history to run alongside the one thousand or so Sakura trees that adorn the park. Consistently ranking in the top 100 cherry blossom viewing sites in all of Japan, Nishi Koen is something of an undiscovered treasure for those who have yet to sample the delights that Fukuoka has to offer.
Hanami season is always one of the best times to be in Japan, wherever you spend yours and whomever you spend it with, I wish you all a very happy and enjoyable Hanami season.