Cherry Blossom Festival
A visit to Japan during sakura (cherry blossom) season is a rare pleasure, and highly recommended. Although the weather can be chilly and damp, the hotels full and the streets clogged with revelers, the sight of the delicate blossoms and their intoxicating effect on the people make for a wonderful experience. I had thought it was sentimental hype until I found myself in Kyoto one year during the height of cherry blossom season. The city was awash in pink; enveloping me and everyone around me with their delicate fragrance; the petals falling, fluttering like gentle rain on the sidewalks and onto the hair of young women in their sakura-patterned kimonos. Since then, I haven’t missed a single season.
That said, timing a trip for optimal viewing can be tricky. Sakura season usually arrives between the end of March and the beginning of April in Tokyo and Kyoto, but it depends on the weather. The internet broadcasts Sakura forecasts, usually as early as February. However, since the season leading up to the full blooms is long, visits that include the first week of April usually coincide with blossoms of some sort, somewhere along the way. One only needs a little flexibility to travel north or south (or up the mountains) to enjoy the sight. But part of the appeal really is the element of chance.
References to sakura hanami (flower viewing) parties appear in literature as early as 894, during the Heian era, and have influenced Japanese culture — including art, food, fashion and theater — to this day. The anticipation of the blossoms’ arrival is celebrated in early March at the country’s major museums, where precious 17th-century screens are taken from storage and displayed, generating excitement that the blossoms are on their way; that the harsh winter is almost over; that spring is just around the corner. When the real blooms arrive, the whole country celebrates; first in the far south, then traveling northwards and up the mountain slopes. During their peak, the blooms cover parkways and mountain slopes, transforming whole cities into pink mist.
The festival itself has changed little over the centuries: groups of friends and colleagues gather to enjoy food and drink, play games, and sing and dance under blossom-laden branches. Food and drink vendors line the main pathways, but most Japanese bring specially prepared homemade (or these days, more likely store bought) hanami bento. These include the usual seasonal grilled fish and simmered spring vegetables, plus rice scattered with vegetables cut into the delicate shape of sakura petals. Green yomogimochi (spring herb dumplings) and kamaboko (fish cakes) with pink designs add to the festive mix, making the bentos especially colorful. The festivities start at lunchtime and continue in waves on through the night, when the atmosphere transforms, thanks to the efforts of local committees who transform the parks with huge torches and rows of gaily colored lanterns. The parties can get boisterous; if you are wandering alone, you'll soon find yourself invited to join drunken parties by emboldened revelers.
Alas, all this revelry is short lived. The blossoms last but for a few days; their exuberant burst of beauty cut short by the slightest wind and rain. This only adds to the experience, as this poignant combination of beauty and sadness is deeply appreciated and widely revered. We are reminded of the fleeting nature of reality, a Buddhist belief.
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