Spring is right around the corner. And for cities around the world, so is cherry blossom season.
Though the exact bloom date varies from city to city (calculating the annual foliage requires the help of horticultural and mathematical experts), one thing is certain: In Japan, as soon as the buds arrive, so do the ubiquitous hanami, or “flower viewing,” parties.
Typically held picnic-style under the blossom-heavy trees, the outdoor gatherings are a national pastime. They’re an opportunity to reflect on the new season, the passing of time and the ephemeral beauty of nature. In 2020, Japan’s prime flora is predicted to begin in late March in southern cities such as Nagasaki and Matsuyama and then appear through Northern cities including Hakodate and Sapporo through early May. If you’re planning a visit during this time, keep a close eye on the blossom forecast, which experts predict down to the exact day, from first to last blossom, city by city.
Here are a few suggestions to help you celebrate the riot of pink and white flowers like a local.
Stake out a spot
You and your group need a prime spot to enjoy the blooms. Even though picnics take place after work (and often into the night), the excitement begins in the morning. Bring a tarp or a woven mat to the park — something waterproof to protect from the damp ground can easily be picked up at a 100-yen store — and use it to reserve your territory. Of course, be considerate at this popular event and only take the space you need.
Parks have rules about staying with your mat, so research the park you’re planning to visit for any location-specific etiquette. Predictions for 2020’s best flora are already coming out. Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyuoen Park, Osaka’s Kema Sakuranomiya Park and Yoshino’s famous Mount Yoshinoyama are among the top picks, making your research that much easier.
Find your fun
A hanami picnic may evolve from lounging under the trees in the late afternoon into a riotous evening of flower viewing, known as yozakura, when petals seem to glow in the dusk light and things begin to feel more like a party.
If, as a traveler, you’re interested in mixing and mingling with a larger group, you may want to join one of a number of expat-led hanami events via Facebook. Check out groups like Tokyo International Network Exchange and Tokyo International Friends for listings and happenings. Many of the events are located in viewing hotspots like Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park and Kyoto’s Maruyama Park, so don’t be shy about stopping by to survey the scene. Oh, and remember to bring some extra layers to wear since spring evenings can be chilly.
Snack on seasonal treats
There are a number of traditional, picnic-ready bites made especially for cherry blossom season. Purchase a seasonal hanami bento (a pre-packed box found in supermarkets and department store food halls) stocked with pink, red and orange specialties. The oh-so-Instagrammable bentos might include sushi made with salmon or shrimp, kabocha squash and sweet green yomogi mochi (rice ball treats).
The seasonal sweets are a feast for the eyes. Tasty pink sakura mochi rice cakes are made with bean paste (anko) and wrapped in pickled cherry blossom tree leaves. And skewers of dango, pink, white and green rice dumplings, are a bite of history dating back to the Edo period. But if modern desserts are more your thing, snag a sakura Kit-Kat.
And for those really in the spirit, it’s also typical to sip sake or beer. Japan’s best-selling brand, Asahi Super Dry, releases a themed beer with a fruity aroma and a blossom-covered label for the occasion.
Be respectfully amazed
Above all, focus on the beauty of this magical and revered moment in Japanese culture, don’t damage the trees or blossoms, and remember to leave your viewing spot as pristine as you found it.
This annual celebration is a time to reflect on life and to remind us of how delicate and fleeting nature is. So, relax under the gently falling petals and relish this unique experience.