As you may have seen from Wendy’s article on Cherry blossoms (if not, you can catch it here) Okinawa blooms earlier than the rest of Japan. As she said, it’s due to the mild winters. Nago, an area in the north of Okinawa, is often one of the first places they spring. Annually, you can catch the Nago Cherry Blossom (Sakura) Festival, which is exactly what I did this year. Let me tell you all about it.
The festival runs in the last weekend of January (this year it was the 30th and 31st, as this very handily fell on the weekend), hoping to catch the first sight of the beautiful cherry blossoms. Normally, this works out, and by the time the festival opens to the public, the trees are awash with colour. Sadly this year, due to an unusual cold snap (well, cold for Okinawa at least!) a lot of the trees were either still bare or just starting to emerge.
Despite this setback, the festival went ahead as planned, and was far from disappointing. Of course, seeing the trees in all their glory would have been wonderful, but you can’t rush Mother Nature. Instead, the festival itself picked up the slack, with a great range of entertainment, food and fun! It had a very typical Japanese festival feel, with a great atmosphere. The day I decided to visit was a little chilly and rainy, but this didn’t detract from the frivolities.
For anyone whose never attended a festival, let’s start with the good stuff. Food. Expect to see a lot of vendors. This will vary from festival to festival, and the region of Japan you are in, but generally speaking, you can get hot, cold, savoury and sweet anywhere you go. Yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) is a staple, easy to eat on the go and delicious! A lot of the time it’s glazed, so there’s plenty of flavour. You can be brave and try some of the seafood on offer, like mini squid on skewers or fried octopus tentacles (comes breaded, and looks like chicken nuggets, so if you aren't a seafood fan, watch out!). I have a sweet tooth, so I usually gravitate towards those. Chocolate covered bananas are divine, and you can kid yourself it’s at least partly healthy, since it’s mostly fruit! If you’re looking for something filling and hearty, on Okinawa you can’t go wrong with their infamous taco rice. This is basically minced beef, flavoured with spices, and usually served on a big bed of rice with salad, salsa, and sometimes guacamole. It’s delicious! At the Nago festival, I found taco rice pies, which consisted of taco meat stuffed into a pastry and baked. It’s what I imagine heaven to taste like.
Once you’ve had your fill of food, why not try a festival game? They are centred mostly on kids, but there’s no harm in adults joining in the fun! They have shooting alleys, fishing games, throwing games and games to test strength. You can win a variety of prizes, anything from plush toys, anime figures, knick knacks, right up to electronic items and food! It’s popular to get fish here too. A lot of the festival stands allow you to purchase goldfish for only a few hundred yen. This is especially popular with young children.
Entertainment wise, there is a full schedule of events lined up. This usually starts with a parade through the area (lots of roads surrounding the site of the festival are closed off, allowing people to walk round safely and at leisure), though sadly the poor weather on the day I visited saw this cancelled. There’s also a pavilion, offering some of the best in local entertainment. For Okinawa, this includes Eisa drummers (a local tradition including dancing, synchronised drumming, singing and traditional wear), Ryukyu dancers (traditional dance from the days of the Ryukyu kingdom, includes both male and female dancers, singing, and beautiful traditional clothing), and local school children, who put on a great song and dance performance.
At Nago, it’s set up so you wander through the rows of stalls and food, before you reach the main event: the Sakura. Get your hiking boots on for this one, as most of the trees line the steps up to Nago Castle Ruins. It’s a beautiful walk up, and a spectacular view across, but it isn’t for the faint hearted. There are a lot of steps, slopes, and in the rain it’s slippery, so please be careful. As I mentioned previously, the weather meant only a smattering of trees had bloomed at my time of visit, however it was still very pretty. Lanterns snaked all the way up, mingling with the flora, giving a peaceful atmosphere. Right at the very top, a little shrine sat serenely amongst the Sakura, which had bloomed fully, a breathtaking sight. It looked like something out of the travel books I fawned over as a child. The shrine, a Shinto structure, houses a bell and donation box, so take yen with you, make a donation, ring the bell, and wish for good fortune for the coming year. After perusing the grounds and catching your breath, take a slow meander back down, and enjoy once again the views, the flora, and if you’re lucky, the fauna.
Hanami, the name given to cherry blossom viewing, is simply a must for all travellers to Japan in the Spring season. It’s a great day out, inexpensive, suitable for all ages, and it’s just so pretty. An escape from the daily grind, allowing you to reflect on life, enjoy precious time with your loved ones, and marvel at one of nature’s best shows.
Happy hanami viewing, wherever you are.