When it comes to travel, I tend to steer clear of the main attractions. On any given trip, you are more likely to find me pottering around quiet side streets. Large gatherings of humans—festivals, theme parks, the various wonders of the world—give me more anxiety than fond memories. As a travel writer, my number one piece of travel advice is to visit less obvious places.
But two years ago, I threw all that out the window. I planned a solo trip to Japan intentionally timed to arrive right in the middle of hanami season, or the cherry blossom festival (hanami literally means “flower viewing”). And despite my aversion to booking trips that are hyped by slideshows on the internet, I absolutely loved it. With every re-emergence of spring, I can’t help but reminisce. Indeed, it was a trip I loved so much that I want you to book it, too.
Of course, cherry blossom trees bloom all over the world each spring, with notable displays in cities such as Washington D.C., Vancouver, Stockholm, and the Champs de Mars in Paris. But Japan is known for making the sakura (cherry blossom) season into a full-blown seasonal and cultural event. There are elaborate picnics, ceremonial teas, poetry readings, sake-drinking, and a truly delightful array of cherry-blossom-themed snacks (Starbucks lattes, ice cream flavors, Kit Kats, flavored Pepsi, and donuts—to name a few).
In Japan, the significance of the festival is as much about welcoming spring as it is acknowledging the ephemeral nature of both beauty, and of life. Appreciation of the trees and their symbolism in Japanese culture goes as far back as the 8th century.
The exact dates on which the trees will bloom are uncertain, so there is a kind of ecological kismet to the whole event. An entire industry is dedicated to predicting the timing of the blossoms—the nation’s official forecasters provide petal-by-petal analysis in the run-up to the season, and there are plenty of English-language forecasts posted online in time for those who want to book a flight. Like the first week you trade your tired winter coat for a light jacket, or the first Saturday it’s warm enough to lie on the grass in the park—you don’t know when the season starts, which is what makes it feel so glorious when it arrives.
My own memories of the cherry blossoms in Japan are still vivid. I had managed to book a surprisingly cheap flight in January, which was scheduled to arrive in the middle of seven-day window when hanami season was meant to be at its peak in Tokyo. After arriving in Tokyo in the dark—and somehow managing to find my way on public transportation to an Airbnb guest house in a jet-lagged haze—I woke up the next morning on a mission.
After a trip to a conbini for picnic supplies (full disclosure: 50% of my meals in Japan were purchased from convenience stores and I highly recommend it), I spent the day in Shinjuku Gyoen, one of Tokyo’s main viewing sites. I marveled at the canopy of trees, their glorious pink litter, and the extremely sophisticated tupperware and refined picnics that my fellow park-goers were enjoying. I felt a million miles away from planet Earth, let alone my home in London.
As anyone who has ever been to Japan will tell you, the country’s attention to detail and adherence to ritual can be mind-boggling—and has the effect of making an outsider feel as though they are on the verge of mortally offending someone at all times, even when buying a donut. When applied to celebrating an event as serendipitous and delicate as trees carrying out their evolutionary impulse to bloom, it brings a levity and joyful mindfulness that I carried with me home from Japan. To this day, every time I see a cherry tree, I stop to marvel.
All of which is to say: I can’t recommend it enough.
When to go: Sakura trees generally bloom on Japan’s major cities from mid-to-late March until mid-April, with each city having a peak week when the trees are at their most glorious.
Where to go: The trees start to bloom in the southern part of Japan’s archipelago and move north, so make sure you consult forecasts specifically for the city you plan to fly into.
Do get: If you plan to travel internally on Japan’s revered rail network, be sure to pay a Japan Rail Pass from a certified agent before you depart. Tourists can’t easily obtain them once they arrive, and ticket prices for locals are steep.