As winter comes to an end, sakura (cherry blossoms) are eagerly awaited, as they add further colour to the landscape of Japan. They blossom first in southern areas of the country and work their way north, from sea-level to mountain-top. So, you have a very good chance of seeing them whether you are enjoying Japan in late March or even in early May.
In March and April, cherry blossom mania begins – forecasts as to when and where the blooms will appear first and when they will peak make the morning weather reports. Sakura-flavored items make their way into restaurant menus, coffee shops, and supermarkets. The fleeting pink petals are celebrated in photography, poetry, and art. The cherry blossom season, however, is just one short part of a beautiful parade of spring flowers in Japan.
The locals typically flock to the best sites to do ‘hanami’ (seeing flowers) in cities, parks, country areas, and even mountain trails. Television weather reports carry daily advice about where and when to go. Office workers organise hanami parties, bringing food and drink and as well portable karaoke machines. Beer is consumed in great quantities, and the karaoke microphone is passed around even as darkness descends. In years past, we’ve had our own hanami parties in Kyoto.
Hanami is a centuries-old tradition, starting perhaps during the early Nara period when Chinese tradition still was having a profound influence on Japan. Aristocrats of Heian-era Kyoto would hold hanami parties and write haiku poems while sipping sake. Karaoke may have replaced haiku, but it’s still a uniquely Japanese event.
Forecasts anticipate dates for cherry blossoms but it is worth knowing that these dates are not fixed. Mother nature will work to her own schedule, and weather conditions can be a factor in how early or how late the flowers bloom.
Most forecasts will show two dates. The first is when the blossoms begin to appear, and the second – usually about a week later – is the date when the blossoms are expected reach their peak. After reaching their peak the flowers become very fragile, and if the spring is wet, the rain will make fast work of the blossoms.
There are many different kinds of cherry trees – some early-blooming and others late-blooming, so even when the blossoms for one type have fallen, those of others may still be about to reach their peak.
Every year, it seems that the cherry blossom season begins earlier. In Okinawa, with its warm climate, the cherry blossoms have come and gone this year, and they appear as early as January and lasting as late as early February.
For the four main islands of Japan, the forecasts usually start with predictions for the first blooms in Kyushu in mid to late March, with a peak about a week to 10 days later. In popular low-lying areas of Western Honshu and in Tokyo (Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto, Matsuyama) sakura make their first appearance in the latter half of March and peak at the beginning of April. In more mountainous inland areas or along the Sea of Japan, the first blossoms tend to appear in early April, peaking soon after. In southern Tohoku, the blossoms begin appearing around mid-April and also have a short window before reaching their peak. In Hokkaido, sakura emerge from late April and peak in early May.
The blossoms emerge later at higher altitudes, and as most of our tours combine lower-lying and mountain areas, the cherry blossoms are often visible well into April, making the opportunities to view Japan’s famed cherry blossoms during the Spring season are plentiful.