Japan is a nation awash with colour. From the glowing neon of Tokyo’s skyscrapers to the jewel hues of a geisha’s kimono. It’s a vibrant contrast to the low-key greys and browns of its people’s business attire. Why, even Godzilla is a distinct shade of dark moss green that captured Hollywood’s imagination. But if there is one colour that is synonymous with this country, it is the delicate light pink of the cherry blossom.
Appearing each spring, this is a truly spectacular sight. It’s no wonder that tourists flock to the Land of the Rising Sun to catch a glimpse of its national flower. But fail to research exactly when the blooms appear and you could end up travelling all that way to look at a lot of leaves. That’s because the wondrous blossom of the sakura tree appears for just a week or two in March and April, before floating away on the breeze.
To the Japanese, this brief glory represents the ephemeral nature of life. The idea that nothing lasts forever and that our time is finite. The season therefore has a bittersweet quality, as the joy of seeing blossoms line the nation’s parks, rivers and streets is balanced by the gentle sadness that it will soon be gone.
That’s why the sakura looms so large in Japanese art and culture. From ancient woodblock prints to today’s films and anime cartoons. Artists have always tried to confront mortality, and what better way to do it than by depicting this fleeting, fragile flower?
Even in today’s teeming, hi-tech, 21st century Japan, the blossom season is a huge national event. There are specialist meteorologists who predict the first outbreak of blooms months in advance. Who then are treated like heroes when they get it right.
And just as the whole of Britain brings out the barbecue when the sun shines, as soon as the cherry blossom appears the Japanese have a picnic, or hanami. They see it as the perfect opportunity to gather their friends and family to enjoy some good food and drink.
If you want to join them and view the trees in all their glory, it’s vital that you’re in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. The blooms appear first in the warmer south, spreading northwards over the next few weeks, so the timing of your visit depends on which part of Japan you want to see.
In Tokyo, peak blossom is usually in the last week of March and the first week of April, while the northern island of Hokkaido must wait until late April or even early May. But the season varies with the weather, and warm temperatures this year brought trees into bloom a fortnight earlier than average.
Googling “sakura forecast” in late January will reveal the early predictions for next year. Before you plan your trip, a piece of advice. Though it might be tempting to reach up and pluck some blossom from the tree, don’t do it. In Japanese culture this is considered to be deeply disrespectful.
Bright lights, big city
The megalopolis of Tokyo is the face of modern Japan. And is home to many of its most compelling attractions. Follow the locals and traverse the Shibuya crossing, the world’s busiest and most famous pedestrian intersection. Once you’ve survived the scramble, make time to explore Shibuya and enjoy some of the quirky fashion boutiques unique to the area.
If you’re a trendy Japanese teenager – or have always wanted to be – this is your nirvana. Shinjuku is the city’s entertainment district, where you can sip a sake, or hit a homer at one of Japan’s many batting cages (baseball is the nation’s second sport behind football). You can even watch sumo wrestlers do battle in the dojo.
But Tokyo has its green spaces, too, and if you’re there for the blossom there is none finer than the Shinjuku Gyoen. For a paltry ¥200 entrance fee (roughly £1.50) you can see one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens which, during the sakura season, turns pink. Take a picnic and give yourself plenty of time to savour its beauty.
A trip back in time
Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is a far cry from its successor. An ancient city of temples, shrines and gorgeous gardens, this is a place steeped in heritage that refuses to be dragged into the present. It is also packed with cherry trees.
If you have time to visit just one location, make it the Path of Philosophy. Named for a local professor who used to walk here every morning, this canal side trail is one of Kyoto’s most popular spots, and is simply stunning when the blossom is out.
Go in peace
For a solemn though unforgettable excursion, pay a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. After the world’s first atomic bomb exploded over the city on 6 August 1945, the only structure left standing was the ruin of this modest, five-storey exhibition hall with its distinctive domed roof. Preserved, and now protected by UNESCO, it remains as a symbol of peace and a memorial to the 140,000 people who lost their lives following the blast.
After paying your respects at the Genbaku (A-bomb) Dome and visiting the Peace Memorial Museum, head a short distance out of town to see the famous torii gate. Standing partly submerged – it actually appears to float – this iconic structure guards the entrance to the 16th century Shinto shrine on the island of Itsukushima.
However you travel to Japan, you will come home with some extraordinary memories. This is a destination like no other, and many visitors find themselves regretting that their stay is so brief. But, as the cherry blossom teaches us, that only increases the pleasure of visiting of this strange, brilliant and utterly beguiling country.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published August 2018 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.