Spring is blooming
Ah, the beauty of the flowers. The parties with friends under picturesque trees. The wonderful feeling that comes with knowing spring has arrived. There’s nothing quite like cherry blossom season in Japan.
But there is a dark side to everything. A side where things aren’t always so rosy – or, in this case, cherry. We all know about the warm and sunny side of cherry blossoms in Japan. But what about that other side?
Given the long-term local love affair with these delicate flowers, you may wonder how there could possibly be any negative association with them at all. Well, for starters, that hasn’t always been the case.
The “Manyoshu” was written in the seventh to the eighth century and is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. It only has 40 poems on cherry blossoms, compared to 118 in praise of the then more popular plum blossom. It’s believed that cherry blossoms didn’t catch on until about the 10th century. Before then, as well as after, Japanese haven’t always been so happy to see them.
In fact, before the Edo Period (1603-1867), many people here considered cherry blossoms to be a symbol of bad luck. Because they are very fragile and last for only 10 days or so, people used to think cherry blossoms were a bad omen for relationships – especially marriage.
“Sakurazame” is an old Japanese term that literally means the fading away of a cherry blossom. People once used it to describe a couple that breaks up soon after getting together, like cherry blossoms that fall to the ground soon after they bloom.
Today, the idea has changed completely. Tradition now calls on cherry blossoms to bring good luck during a wedding ceremony. “Sakurayu,” or cherry blossom tea, is often served at weddings for this reason.
Novels as well as poems have often drawn public attention to the cherry blossom – especially for a sort of melancholic contrast between its beauty and short lifespan. One famous novel, “Under the Cherry Trees” by Motojiro Kajii (1901-1932), skips the beauty part altogether in its introduction and draws a direct correlation between death and cherry blossoms.
According to the novels opening, “Dead bodies are buried under cherry blossoms! You have to believe it. Otherwise, you couldn’t possibly explain the beauty of the cherry blossom. I have been restless, lately, because I couldn’t believe in this beauty. But now I finally understand: Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees! You have to believe it.”
In fact, Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, home to the ash remains of around 360,000 unidentified war dead from World War II, is just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo’s most popular cherry blossom viewing area, Chidorigafuchi Park. And you may have noticed that cherry blossom trees are a common sight at gravesites and cemeteries as well as shrines and temples.
So I wouldn’t recommend digging around any cherry blossom trees to see what lies six feet under – evenv if you have had your fill of blossom viewing party beverages.
Whether true or tall tales, such trivia might make for some interesting small talk while viewing cherry blossom with your friends and family. No matter what you talk about, the sheer beauty of Japan’s cherry blossoms will likely take your breath away in the end.
Where to behold the blossoms
AROUND THE KANTO PLAIN
JINDAI BOTANICAL GARDEN CAMELLIA & CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Tokyo): March 15-April 10, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon.; camellias bloom in mid-March and 770 cherry blossom trees bloom the first week of April; concerts 11 a.m. & 2 p.m. March 27 and April 3 at Shibafu Hiroba scheduled; 5-31-10 Jindaiji Motomachi, Chofu City, Tokyo, bus from Mitaka Station, JR Chuo-line, or Chofu Station, Keio-line, Jindaiji Shokubutsu Koen Mae bus; 600 yen adults, 400 yen high school students, kids free; 0424-83-2300.
RIKUGIEN GARDEN (Tokyo): March 17-April 3; Rikugien, a garden built in Edo Period, is famous for drooping cherry trees, which are illuminated after sunset during the bloom; until April 5, garden is open 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Subway Nanboku-line, Komagome Station; 300 yen; 03-3941-2222.
TOKYO MIDTOWN BLOSSOM: March 18-April 17; 150 cherry trees bloom — illuminated 5-11 p.m. — which can be viewed at an open-air terrace of Tokyo Midtown Garden, Roppongi Station on Hibiya Line or three-minute walk from Nogizaka Station on Chiyoda-line; 03-3475-3100.
BUNKYO CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Tokyo): March 19-April 3; 120 cherry blossom trees on Harimazaka slope in bloom; seven-minute walk from Myogadani Station on Marunouch-line; 03-5803-1941.
TOSHIMAEN AMUSEMENT PARK (Tokyo): March 25-April 5, 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; 800 cherry blossom trees; 500 yen after 3 p.m., 1,600 yen adults, 1,300 yen kids for entry and free ride ticket after 3 p.m.; Seibu Ikebukuro-line, Toshimaen Station; 03-3990-0884.
UENO PARK (Tokyo): March 19-April 15, 5:30-8 p.m., 1,200 cherry blossom trees at Shinobazu Pond, two-minute walk from Ueno Station on Metro Ginza and Hibiya-lines; 03-3828-5644.
SHAKUJI RIVERSIDE CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Tokyo): Late March until early April; 1,000 cherry blossom trees along the Shakuji River, five-minute walk from Nakaitabashi Station on Tobu-line; 03-3579-2251.
INOKASHIRA PARK CHERRY BLOSSOMS (Tokyo): Late March until early April; 500 cherry blossom trees around the pond at Inogashira Park, near fancy shopping district of Kichijoji, 10-minute walk from JR Kichijoji Station on Chuo-line; 0422-47-6900.
SHINJUKU GYOEN (Tokyo): March 25-April 24, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; this 144-acre park in Shinjuku is a famous viewing spot; 10-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station; 200 yen; 03-3350-0151.
KINUGASA CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Yokosuka): March 24-April 4; 2,000 cherry blossoms trees, illuminated 6-8 p.m.; Taiko (Japanese drums) and shakuhachi (bamboo fruit) and other performances 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on weekends at Kinugasa-yama Park, a 25-minute walk from JR Kinugasa Station; 046-853-1611.
TSUKAYAMA PARK CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Yokosuka): March 24-April 10, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; about 1,000 cherry blossom trees on the hill with a view of Yokosuka Port, Tsukayama Park, 25-minute walk from Keikyu-line, Hemi or Anjinzuka Station; 046-822-2575.
CHIDORIGAFUCHI (Tokyo): March 25-April 3; Chidorigafuchi, the northeastern moat of the Imperial Palace, is one of the most famous cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan and the trees are illuminated 6:30-10 p.m. during the festival; Subway Tozai-line, Kudan-Shita Station; 03-5211-4185.
YASUKUNI SHRINE CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Tokyo): March 25-April 3; when forecasting cherry blossom blooming date in Tokyo area, the meteorological agency’s staff examines the roughly 800 cherry trees here, a five-minute walk from Subway Tozai-line, Kudan-shita Station; www.yasukuni.or.jp.
HAMURA FLOWER AND WATER FESTIVAL (Yokota area): March 25-April 10, 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; about 500 cherry blossom trees along the Tama River and festival has food and street performers and trees illuminated 6-8 p.m.; JR Ome-line, Hamura Station; 042-555-6211.
ODAWARA CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Kanagawa prefecture): March 26 & 27; about 320 cherry blossom trees at Odawara Castle Park, illuminated 6-9 p.m.; a 10-minute walk from JR Odawara Station; Odawara Tourist Association 0465-33-1521.
SUMIDA RIVER CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Tokyo): March 26- April 3; about 1,000 trees along the Sumida River, illuminated 5-9:30 p.m.; has become a popular spot for visitors because Tokyo SkyTree is close by; five-minute walk from Asakusa Station on Ginza-line or seven-minute walk from Honjo Azumabashi Station on Toei Asakusa-line; 03-5608-6951.
SANKEIEN GARDEN (Yokohama): March 26-April 3, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; seasonal flowers and historic buildings in the garden, illuminated 30-minute sunsets-9 p.m., best time to view is 7:30 p.m.; 10-minute bus ride from JR Negishi-line; 500 yen; www.sankeien.or.jp/pdf/guidemap_english.pdf.
FUSSA CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Yokota area): March 26-April 3; 500 cherry blossom trees — illuminated 5-9 p.m. — along the banks of the Tama River, 15-minute walk from JR Ushihama Station; 042-551-1511.
GONGENDO PARK CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Saitama prefecture): March 26-April 10; known as one of the best sites for cherry blossoms in Japan, it has 1,000 cherry blossom trees along a roughly half-mile-long dike, contrasted with field mustard; 30-minute walk from Satte Station on Tobu Nikko-line or 20-minute drive from Kuki IC on Tohoku Express; parking for 1,000 vehicles nearby; 0480-43-1111 ext. 538.
KOMATSUGAWA 1,000 CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Tokyo): April 3, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; 1,000 cherry blossom trees in bloom along the Arakawa River; festival includes food booths and free pony rides at Komatsugawa Park, five-minute walk from Higashi Oshima Station on Toei Shinjuku-line; 03-5662-5543.
MOUNT YOSHINO CHERRY BLOSSOMS (Nara prefecture): Early April through late April; Mount Yoshino — a UNESCO World Heritage site — is known as one of the best cherry blossom sites in Japan with 20,000 cherry blossom trees; www.yoshinoyama-sakura.jp/english.
NAKANO CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Tokyo): April 1-3; 320 cherry blossom trees on Shin Ome Streets (north exit of JR Nakano Station) bloom and are illuminated nights; JR Nakano Station; 03-3389-1310.
TAKADA PARK CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Niigata prefecture): April 1-17; more than 4,000 cherry blossom trees bloom and are illuminated by 3,000 traditional lights — bonbori-handled paper lanterns — sunset-11 p.m.; JR Takada Station on Shinetsu-line; 025-543-2777.
HIROSAKI PARK CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Aomori): April 23-May 6; about 2,500 trees around Hirosaki Castle and moat bloom and are illuminated sunset-10 p.m.; 20-minute bus ride from JR Hirosaki Station; 310 yen admission 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; 0172-35-3131.
TOWADA CITY CHERRY FESTIVAL (Aomori): April 23-May 5; 156 cherry trees along the Koma Highway to bloom, illuminated sunset-10 p.m.; 30-minute bus ride from JR Shichinohe Towada Station Towada-shi Chuo Station on Tohoku Shinkansen; 0176-51-6772.
KINTAIKYO (Iwakuni): from end of March-beginning of April; spectacular view with 3,000 cherry blossom trees around the bridge; free of charge, large picnic area with public bathroom; within 15 mins drive from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni.
SASEBO PARK (Sasebo): The 9th annual International Friendship Cherry Blossom Festival will be held between March 19 and April 10 at Sasebo Park. The blooms will be illuminated 6 - 9 p.m. throughout the period. 20 minute-drive from JR Sasebo Sta. Address: Minatomachi, Hirasecho, Sasebo city. POC: International Friendship Cherry Blossom Festival Office 0956-46-6868.
SAIKAIBASHI PARK (Sasebo): March 19-April 10; about 1,000 trees at the area and are illuminated 6:30 p.m. -9:30 p.m. Local food booth are available. Enjoy the magnificent view of cherry blossom, whirl pool in the ocean, bridge and views of islands at the same time. One of the most popular spot for cherry blossom in Sasebo area.