The arrival of cherry blossoms brings to life an iconic image of Japan’s past and present. Each year, the pinkish-white clumps of blossom appear, as if fluted through the branches by some benevolent underground spirit – a timeless view, but also a fleeting one, since the fragile flowers perish almost as soon as they arrive.
Many Japanese assume cherry trees, known as sakura, to be unique to their homeland, or at least to the East. While this is far from the case, only in Japan is the arrival of the trees’ blossoms taken so seriously as to constitute a national obsession. Followed assiduously on national weather reports, the sakura-Jensen – cherry-blossom frontier – sweeps a pink wave across the country from south to north, with locals frolicking in its wake at flower-viewing parties known as hanami.
There are many popular places for a hanami – Tokyo’s Ueno Park is a favorite spot, as is Takada Park in Jōetsu – but the truth is that you’ll rarely be far from one if the sakura-Jensen is sweeping by. With paper lanterns strung across the trees and mats laid out under the blooms in the manner of a kindergarten picnic, it’s time for the serious business of food and sake consumption – in such a conservative society, the opportunity to let one’s hair down is often taken with aplomb.
FORGET NEW ENGLAND’S FALL?
New England has worldwide renown as a place of fall beauty. Fiery hues form the backdrop to a quaint, small-town atmosphere brought about by the fact that most places in New England are quaint, small towns. Friendly locals, fantastic scenery, and enjoyable drives make leaf-peeping hugely popular.
Once the leaves start to turn, income the leaders – many visitors own a New England cottage for the sole purpose of leaf viewing – and the sheer numbers make bona fide tourist towns out of settlements that otherwise lie empty. The typical tourist sees the leaves, then races off to buy Chinese-made trinkets sold by shop owners who live out of state – providing little benefit to the local economy.
Beat the crowds by eschewing the tourist traps such as Bar Harbor, Cape Cod, or North Conway. In addition, many towns and states now tag locally made goods – “Made In Maine” being one example – ensuring that the bulk of your cash goes to the locals.
Getting There and Around
Though a hanami can be enjoyed almost anywhere in Japan, most international visitors will touch down at Narita Airport, located 35 miles (57 km) from downtown Tokyo. Foreign tourists will be able to make use of the Japan Rail Pass, though this rare Japanese travel bargain can only be bought outside the country.
When to Go
The sakura-zensen spreads right across Japan from the south to the north, usually starting in Okinawa in late February and hitting Hokkaido in May. Given the vagaries of weather forecasting, it’s hard to plan in advance, though those arriving in Tokyo or Kyoto for a couple of weeks in April should catch the hanami action.
Though many now follow the more practical modern maxim of Hana Yori Dango (dumplings over flowers), there remain those who maintain the hanami’s centuries-old purpose, silent contemplation of the transient nature of beauty, and of life itself – rare feelings indeed, in one of the world’s most hyperactive societies. The samurai may be long gone and the geisha incongruous in neon-soaked streets, but the fragile, ephemeral spirit of the cherry blossom continues to live on.