Every country has its own cherished national flower, but it’s rare to find a nation that shares the passion that Japan has for its precious cherry blossoms. The Sakura tree, when it blooms, is a magical sight to witness especially because the blooms fill the entire landscape and instantly convert the scene from a grey winter to the fresh pink color of spring. The flowers can appear anytime in March and April and their blooming period is limited; this makes the cherry blossoms all the more prized and the blooming season is celebrated with picnics, tea ceremonies and social events.
Locals and travelers planning to visit Japan keep a keen watch on announcements by the weather bureau to find out when the Sakura flowers are expected to bloom in their area and plan their celebrations and visit accordingly; since the blossoms last only for a week or two, these predictions are given a lot of importance. Another important point to note here is that there are different blossom schedules for different locations across Japan depending on the general climate of the location. So while places like Okinawa experience cherry blossoms as early as January or February, cities in the interior like Tokyo and Kyoto celebrate blooming season in late March and early April. The flowers bloom even later in the northern islands of Japan like Hokkaido; this means you can catch the blooms as late as May.
So what happens in the Cherry Blossom festival? Hanami, meaning viewing flowers, is all about watching the lovely blooms and enjoying the advent of spring while basking in its beauty. Families select a choice spot to watch the flowers and set out with picnic baskets, arrange barbecue lunches or get take-out to eat in peace amidst picturesque natural surroundings. This custom is followed even in dense cities like Tokyo where, in spite of limited green space, the beauty of the flowers is admired against the backdrop of historic monuments or in vast national parks and gardens.
Typically, popular Hanami spots get filled with locals and visitors, so people book their place early in the morning by spreading their sheets at their favored location and keeping vigil. Then families occupy the space and spend a relaxed day outdoors – a luxury after the extremely cold winters. A relaxed spirit prevails and the picnickers are treated to a day of music, dance and shows by musicians and merry-makers that set up stalls. Tea ceremonies, plenty of street food, festival food and sake mark the occasion and add cheer. The party goes on till late in the night when the illuminated blooms offer a whole new picture.
In Tokyo this year, the blossoms are expected to be on display from March 30th to April 9th. Of course, Japan is not the only place where you can view cherry blossoms; the festival is common in the US too, in places like Washington DC, New Jersey and San Francisco. Still, if you want a genuine Hanami experience, booking your tickets to Japan is the best bet.