Japan is most beautiful during cherry blossom, or sakura, season. The country becomes so saturated with tiny, pale pink flowers. It’s impossible to walk anywhere in Japan during this time and not see them. The trees cover roads, rivers and parks. They peak out over the walls of private homes. Making Japan briefly feel like a place where trees have surreal white leaves.
Sakura season typically lasts for a couples of weeks at the dawn of spring, with peak blossoms lasting just a handful of days as daytime weather becomes almost too perfect. Specific dates are dependent on the weather and the region of Japan. Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto generally experience blossoms as March turns to April.
The Japanese school year starts around this same time. Possibly so that opening class photos can be taken underneath the sakura trees, which all public schools seem to have. But the Japanese love for that pale pink flower goes beyond awkward class photos, they permeate Japanese culture. The flowers are on the 100 yen coin, a word in the language is dedicated to picnicking under the blossoms (hanami), there's a popular folk song about them and also seasonal hanami beer packaging is released. Also, since 1912, different arms of Japanese government have famously given Washington D.C. close to 9,000 cherry blossom trees as gifts over the years, clearly unable to keep the sakura love to themselves.
In a way, hanami is the culmination of Japanese culture. Not the giant robot, maid cafe, Godzilla, anime love pillow culture. But the real, everyday culture of Japan that works hard and loves to eat and drink with friends. Seated on the ground with shoes off, drinking large amounts of various different alcohols (mostly Asahi, with some sake and shochu), eating lots of various great food (fried noodles, fried octopus balls, sushi rolls) and being all sorts of friendly.
Yoyogi Park might be the largest concentration of hanami on the Japanese islands. I’ve never seen so many people picnicking before in my life, and, to their credit, never seen so many drunk people acting so civil and polite.
I spent some time with my friend Kasio looking up the best places in Japan to see the sakura. While my instincts told me that traditional Kyoto would be ideal, according to how the Japanese Internet ranks it, Tokyo has more to offer.
The absolute best place to see sakura turned out to be Chidori-ga-fuchi, part of the outer moat of the Imperial Palace. Sakura branches overflow from the banks, draping into the moat. It’s unreal to see so many flowers. Couples spend hours in line to rent rowboats to properly solidify their relationship. Naturally, there was a crowd, despite it being a weekday afternoon, but no matter, it was gorgeous.
The Meguro River is also an amazing sight during this time. It looks much more like a canal than a natural river, but it is beyond beautiful nonetheless, also with sakura overflowing into the river. People walk along the banks, taking selfies, video chatting, drinking tall bottles of beer as vendors sell festival food.
Without a doubt, this is the best time of the year to visit any part of Japan, but apparently I’m not the only person who knows that. I hadn’t booked anything in advance and quickly learned that virtually all of the beds in Kyoto and Tokyo had been booked up. The lack of hotel rooms is due to a combination of tourists wanting to see the pretty flowers, the end of the year school vacation throughout parts of Asia and also new corporate hires darting around Japan for training. According to hotels.com, more than 97% of all hotel/hostel/guesthouse beds in Tokyo were booked. The biggest city in the world, set to host the 2020 Summer Olympics with no extra hotel rooms deemed necessary, was been booked solid. The remaining 3% of rooms were either Ritz Carlton level or some closet with no hot water level. I figured hot water was over-rated anyway.
When it’s finally time for the petals to fall, the trees become almost too normal looking and the pink petals coat the ground and waterways, creating an equally beautiful scene.
Japan is absolutely not the only place in the world to have cherry blossoms. They are popular in Korea, China, Sweden, England the US and around the world. But Japan is absolutely the best place in the world to see them.