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Friday, June 9, 2017

HANAMI: The Japanese CHERRY BLOSSOM Viewing Festival


Speak for flowers associated with a country and only quickly comes to mind when Japan is mentioned. They actually have two iconic blossoms, but the easiest remembered in none other than the Sakura, or cherry blossom. They bloom from the Japanese cherry tree, Prunus serullata, and a common sight throughout most of the Japanese islands in the springtime that is from March to May.
So ubiquitous is the cherry blossom that it has a firm grip on the Japanese imagination. “Sakura” is a popular girl’s name for instance, and people have come to observe a tradition centuries old, to take some time off from their regular daily routines during early March or so, just to go the nearest grove of cherry trees and sit under them, either sedately watching the blooming Sakura petals falls or enjoy a vibrant picnic among the flowery shower. This is the practice of “Hanami” or “Flower Viewing”, wherein people can contemplate both the beauty of the cherry blossoms and ponder on their transient nature as symbolized by their falling petals.
In modern Japan, the official start of the Hanami season is a special feature of the Japan Weather Association’s broadcasts. Annually at the start of spring when the word is given, travellers both domestic and international, local and foreigner, make for a flurry of flight bookings as people return to their hometowns or tourists arrive in droves in order to participate in this time-honored tradition with a mix of joyful celebration.
Japan itself is a large enough area with multiple islands, to the point that the optimum blooming period of cherry blossoms for Hanami come at different dates of the year according to geographical spread and last for only a few days at most. The beginning usually takes places further south, on the Sakura blooming in Okinawa, then creeping northward as the season changes through March, April and May. But if you’re looking for the best places to catch the most picturesque sights of cherry blossoms for Hanami, these are the best places to be.

Mt. Fuji
It’s probably to be expected that two distinctly Japanese symbols would go hand in hand. There are several locations around the sacred mountain of Japan, Fuji, where the best Sakura sightings can be found. The most obvious choices are the five small lakes of Kawaguchi, Yamanaka, Shoji, Motosu and Sai, which roughly surround the foot of the mountain. It’s almost child’s play to snap pictures or take video of the Sakura trees in bloom with Mt. Fuji in the background. It’s best to try booking a trip with World Expeditions which hosts a two-week tour during the Hanami period. Go to http://www.worldexpeditions.com/au/index.php?id=357 for further inquiry.
Nara
One of the ancient capitals of Japan, Nara is also where the Hanami custom was said to have originated (though with Ume blossoms instead). The best place to watch Sakura here would be in the city’s Deer Park, which is also a preserve for Japanese deer, considered a divine messenger in the Shinto religion and a symbol of the city itself. This one is included in the Hanami itinerary of Jacada Travel here: https://www.jacadatravel.com/asia/trips/cherry-blossom-of-japan-luxury-tour/
Kyoto
Another former capital of Japan, it was during its Heian period that cherry blossoms replaced Ume as the flower to watch during Hanami. The Kamogawa River is lined with Sakura trees, and they can be found also at the Shinto Heian shrine and the city’s Gion district where Kyoto’s geisha (they prefer to be called “geiko”) reside. The Kyoto Imperial palace meanwhile has 60 individual blossoms, the Shidare, which are reputed to be early bloomers.

Tokyo – Ueno Park
This is the final stop of the evolution of Hanami, where it expanded from an exclusive activity of Imperials and nobles, to become a tradition of all Japanese. Even today, Ueno is an oasis in the larger ultra-urban metropolis of Tokyo where people gather to watch the Sakura. Food for the occasion is also easily accessed thanks to nearby department stores offering special Hanami bento boxes. Be warned though: because this is Tokyo, the most visited location in Japan, seating space in the park is both limited and highly sought after.
Other Stops
Rest assured there are more areas in Japan with a prime view of cherry blossoms for Hanami. The historically preserved city of Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture is another hit due to their Sakura at Kenroku-en Garden. For late travelers, Hokkaido is the last resort to experience Hanami by May, either at the town of Niseko or at the city of Hakodate, specifically their Goryokaku Park.
The Hanami festival is a great source of national pride for the Japanese, one they have wholeheartedly shared with the world. While other countries with Japanese Sakura have their own version of the viewing festival, nothing beats going to Japan itself to really experience the natural beauty of Hanami. Spring has only just begun. Ask around now for the best opportunity to make it.

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