Japan's First Cherry Blossom Bloom: Hanami in Okinawa
While the residents of Hokkaido are still shoveling snow, down in Okinawa people are already putting on their Hawaiian shirts and getting ready for Japan's first cherry blossom bloom.
Thanks to Okinawa's southern location and warm climate, it enjoys the country's earliest hanami season, usually starting by the end of January and going into the first two weeks of February.
The northern part of the island blooms first, so take a scenic drive up island to see the biggest and best sakura viewing spots, and attend some fun local festivals.
The ruins of Nakijin Gusuku (that's 'castle' in the Ryukyu language) are a beautiful place to see hanami, especially as you can climb up the old stone steps to reach the top and look down onto a sea of pink. There is a small entrance fee to the annual festival, and in the evenings the cobble stone paths of this UNESCO World Heritage Site are illuminated, creating great photo opportunities.
More than 7,000 sakura trees have been planted along the various routes to the top of Yaedake, and people have been flocking to the hanami festival at Sakura no Mori Park for 38 years. There is heavy traffic on weekends as there is a lot of entertainment, including the Okinawa Folk Singing Competition and Miss Sakura Beauty Pageant. Many people visit Yaedake in the afternoon, and then see the illumination at nearby Nakijin Castle in the evening.
The biggest festival of them all takes place at the ruins of Nago Castle, and people love to pose under the hundreds of Orion Beer lanterns that hang from the cherry trees on the iconic stone steps at the entrance. You could spend an entire day here, with lots of live entertainment, food and drink on sale, ocean viewing pavilions, a suspension bridge, and multiple playgrounds for the kids.
Now in its 12th year, this lesser known festival takes place in the quiet southern town of Yaese on the first Sunday in February. If the Motobu crowds are not your thing, head here for a more laid back atmosphere. The park grounds are also illuminated at night, which makes for a pleasant evening stroll under the sakura.
Though it takes place on a smaller scale, you can still enjoy hanami in Naha city. Yogi Park is a popular place for city folks to put on kimono and take some snapshots, while those who prefer a longer stroll can head to Manko Koen for a pleasant riverside walk or bike ride.