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Beyond the Guidebook: Expats Share Their Favorite Hanami Spots and Rituals

Beyond the Guidebook: Expats Share Their Favorite Hanami Spots and Rituals

Date published: 19 March 2019
Last updated: 18 March 2019

Out of the dozens of quirks Japan is known for, cherry blossom season could be an award-winner. Sakura cherry blossoms have long been a symbol in Japan for short-lived and delicate beauty -- that all beautiful things come to an end and thus should be appreciated to its maximum during its life. Through this praise for the blossoms that last only for about a week, people in Japan use this time of year as the ultimate reason to hold picnics and parties by the mystifying trees in a tradition called "hanami."

From party (picnic) hopping in the park to strolls along whole roads lined with sakura, indulging in pink and sakura themed lattes and cuisine, the entirety of Japan comes out of long winter hibernation in full, bright colors and liveliness. Read on to learn what hanami veterans in Tokyo have to say!

Hanami season is one of the best times of the year to be in Japan!

Hanami season is one of the best times of the year to be in Japan!

Max Powers
Voice Actor #maxpowervoice / 15 years in Japan

Hanami season is one of the best times of the year to be in Japan! ...Or so everyone will tell you (and it’s true!). Sakura trees, which are nondescript brown blobby pillars throughout the rest of the year suddenly seem to be everywhere during the season and so do loads of people plopping down under them with cans of alcohol and blue tarps used as picnic sheets.

A couple of points of advice for first-timers and reminders for veterans:

First, logistics: Popular spots for Hanami like the Imperial Palace, Yoyogi Park and Ueno Park are EXTREMELY crowded! So much so that people will arrive before the sunrise to lay out their picnic mats and secure territory for their late-arriving compatriots (who should be damn grateful for their extra effort). Also, know where your group is going to be before you get there! With so many people crowded into a small space, the reception on your phone may show full bars but still not be able to send or receive calls (or even data). I’ve spent many an hour wandering the paths of parks jam-packed with boisterous drunks literally spilling over into the walkway trying to spot people I know. I should add that the outdoor toilet situation is particularly precarious (I’ve seen 50 women in line at a time, easily) so go early and often! The temperature fluctuates quite a bit during the late March early April season with occasional rain and thunderstorms if you’re unlucky. Check the weather forecast, dress in layers, outdoor shoes/gear and keep them in sight at all times just in case. Things rarely get stolen in Japan, but it does happen. Items might also be picked up mistakenly if someone thinks it belongs to one of their group. If you’re having an after-party at a restaurant or bar nearby, make sure you have reservations for your group or you’ll be wandering the streets!

Second, etiquette: Bring a bottle for the group (and your own drinks for yourself if you want to control your consumption). Snacks and food are always very welcome at any picnic, and with some people who always “forget” to bring anything, you’ll be glad you have some to spare. With so many bottles around, spills atop the tarp are practically inevitable. Be sure you have pocket tissues, or better yet, paper towels so that a flood of red wine doesn’t destroy the jacket/bag/butt of anyone downstream from the spill, and/or your own! If you leave before the rest of the group, do a trash collection and drop it off on your way out of the area. The city has been quite good about setting up trash/recycling stations in dense traffic areas that are easy to find and the people who end up cleaning up at the end will be thankful they have less to deal with.

Third, i’MnOtDrUNnKYOUARRRR: Tokyo is a city full of people from all over Japan and the rest of the world. When alcohol gets involved, it helps cross-communication between people and groups that might otherwise never interact, which is great! Except that, just like in the real world, some people really just want to be left alone, and the civilized thing to do is respect their wishes. You and your group might be outgoing and fun and want to make friends, but their group might be an insular group from Kagoshima who are getting together for the first time in Tokyo and want to interact with people from back home, or a group of coworkers or classmates having a reunion, etc. You wouldn’t want a function like that interrupted, would you? Be courteous, say hello, but respect the blue tarp borders and don’t force interaction with your neighbors. Who knows? After a little while, they might start asking you questions beyond “Where from” and “Please teach me English” and even start sharing drinks, food and friendship!

Finally, keep in mind that Hanami is an important cultural event in Japan and you are taking part in a tradition engaged in by nobles and commoners alike hundreds of years before anyone today was born. During the samurai era, the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms’ short season was said to symbolize the nature of life. Take the time to appreciate their beauty, feel the kinship with the people around you and the real connection to the history of the tradition. Oh, and try not step on any drunk people.

As the blossoms bloomed, I was awestruck and out of control taking photos

As the blossoms bloomed, I was awestruck and out of control taking photos

Qiraat Cunningham
Civil servant from London on a career break / 1 year in Japan

I moved to Japan last year, and as the sakura forecasts began I was sceptical if the sakura would live up to the hype! However, as the blossoms bloomed, I was awestruck and out of control taking photos. Here are my two hanami tips from last year.

Breakfast hanami: The sea of picnic mats and jolly revellers felt like an inherent part of the hanami experience but one of my most enjoyable was the calmer breakfast hanami. I bought pastries from one of Tokyo’s many bakeries and met a friend in Shinjuku Gyoen. Grabbing the perfect hanami spot in popular parks can be difficult but in the morning we were spoilt for choice. We ate under sublime pink sakura and leisurely strolled around to admire the sakura before the crowds arrived. If you’re after a stunning and serene start to the day, then a breakfast hanami is the way to go. Or you could begin a day long hanami with breakfast!

Look locally: I walked around popular sakura spots in Tokyo and it was a surprise to discover a pretty spot in my neighbourhood, Shimokitazawa. A path and stream that I didn’t think much of during the winter transformed into a charming sakura lined path. One afternoon I decided to follow the blossom trees...and they just kept going! 45 minutes later (with a few busy roads in between) I found myself along the Meguro River (well known for sakura). Whilst not as densely packed with sakura as the famous sakura spots in Tokyo, I appreciated and enjoyed the walk to the Meguro River because an ordinary suburban setting transformed into something remarkable for a few weeks - so seek out the extraordinary spots near you! The path is quiet on weekdays but popular for hanami with the locals during weekends.

Note: The sakura lined path is along the Kitaza River Green Way and starts near Umegaoka Station on the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku.

Sakura can be found in all sorts of nooks and crannies around town...You’ll find their beauty everywhere!

Sakura can be found in all sorts of nooks and crannies around town...You’ll find their beauty everywhere!

Michelle Roberts
Intercultural Trainer and Consultant, Anti-Human Trafficking Activist / 8 years in Japan

I love how Japan celebrates the “seasons”. Fireworks and matsuri motifs adorn the country during the summer months, and as soon as the autumnal equinox comes around, the beer cans sport fall foliage. The day after Halloween, thousands of Christmas trees appear like magic and at the end of February, Starbucks usually has out their latest edition of sakura (cherry blossom) drinks and mugs.

But there’s something different about sakura. The way some people talk about sakura, one would think these are magical, elusive blooms, and excursions to particular neighborhoods are the only way to find them. In reality, sakura can be found in all sorts of nooks and crannies around town. Look around. You’ll find their beauty everywhere.

While I enjoy having hanami parties in Arisugawa Park or strolling along the Nakameguro River to look at the sakura, my favorite is a small tree tucked around the corner of a main Azabujuban street. It’s the first tree in my neighborhood to bloom every year. It teases me with the coming of warmer weather. I’m still bundled up in scarf and hat while the tree allows its delicate buds to appear naked. The blossoms open up as I slowly lighten the layers and they come into full bloom as I feel a hint of sun on my cheeks.

Look up and enjoy the full range of sakura season. Pay attention as the trees take on a pink hue shortly before the buds appear. Be patient for the buds to open. Slow down and marvel at the delicate bloom. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s over yet. Pay attention. The beauty of the petals gently floating to the ground, blanketing the sidewalks and streets, reminds us how fleeting life is and not to take it for granted.

Nijo Castle (Kyoto) illuminations and Chidorigafuchi (Tokyo) rowboat experiences are second to none

Nijo Castle (Kyoto) illuminations and Chidorigafuchi (Tokyo) rowboat experiences are second to none

Petras Kimbrys
Web Developer / 10 years in Japan

Hanami translates to "Sakura Viewing", but arguably only 5% is usually spent for admiring sakura, while the rest is for partying outside with friends (and strangers) in local city parks, picnic style. Yoyogi Park in Tokyo and Maruyama Park in Kyoto are always packed with people, so come early to claim your picnic sheet space. If, however, you'd prefer to avoid alcohol poisoning during the two week cherry blossom phenomena, skip the partying and go for the evening sakura viewings - Nijo Castle (Kyoto) illuminations and Chidorigafuchi (Tokyo) rowboat experiences are second to none.

A chance to be free; to celebrate Spring and life

A chance to be free; to celebrate Spring and life

Mark Jackson
Organizer / 12 years in Japan

I remember. I remember it well - the first time I experienced the ritual of hanami. I was awestruck walking into Yoyogi Park. It was a sea of pink flowing with the tides of March...and people! Lots of them and they were all getting loose! This was 2007 and luckily this was at a time when there were still bands and performers playing along the Inokashira Dori. This was also at a time when you couldn't use your phone or internet because of the massive crowd hanging out there.

After a few more hanami experiences and reflecting on the importance of cherry blossoms in Japan, it all made sense. It’s like a metaphor for life. It’s a celebration of new life and hopes for fertility. It’s the time to ask for agricultural blessings and to start planting. It’s all very feminine as Mother Earth gives birth to a new season. And yet its time is limited just as ours is. Just as our presence here can be gone in an instant, with one or two storms the cherry blossoms are blown off the branches like pink snow. The fragility and fleeting nature of life is on display for two weeks. So get out there and enjoy it. Make the best of it. Don’t sleep too much or you’ll miss it. Don’t take it for granted because you never know how next year will be. I have seen some years almost completely rained out, some freezing cold, and others with perfect weather. When good weather aligns with peak bloom on a weekend, it’s a real treat!

And now 12 years on, I’m still just as excited. Yet it’s so hard to decide where and when to go. It’s two weeks that you spend a lot of time outside of the house to relish in the season. I am a person who actually enjoys crowds so I usually go to the busiest and most popular places on weekends. During the week I check out lesser known places. It’s easy to find the best spots such as Ueno Park just by doing a quick search online but here are some personal, albeit standard recommendations:

Shinjuku Gyoen is a beautiful spot to have a hanami picnic especially if you don’t want to be around people getting pulled out on stretchers by paramedics due to drinking too much. This is because alcohol isn’t allowed at Shinjuku Gyoen. Of course you need to see the sakura in Nakameguro and more specifically the yozakura or when the trees are illuminated at night (don’t go there if you hate crowds though!). Another great spot for night viewing is Chidorigafuchi Park where you can also take a boat around the moat or Rikugien Garden with its huge weeping sakura.

I used to live in Omiya in Saitama and Omiya Park is a pretty nice spot that is not always on the list of best places. Plus, it’s really not that far from Tokyo. I used to live in Kichijoji as well and the Inokashira Park is another favorite. It’s popular with students and you can spend the greater part of a day enjoying that area. Now I live in Shimokitazawa and near here in Setagaya, there is the Kitazawagawa path where you can stroll or cycle and see a lot of cherry blossoms. If you want to get out of the city, take a day trip to Kamakura or hike up Mt. Takao. They both offer good cherry blossom viewing opportunities. Finally, the Showa Kinen park near Tachikawa is arguably the best park in Tokyo and one of my favorite places to go all year round. You can rent a bike there and cycle around the expansive grounds as well.

However, what I know well is how to have a hanami party and we all know that Yoyogi is the place for that! While it actually doesn't have the best views or as many trees as other places, it is the de facto place to hold enormous gatherings and hanami events and where things definitely get wild later on. It’s festive and jovial and full of all kinds of people in convivial spirits. I love how so many people can be in the same spot outside under the trees enjoying nature, meeting people, and drinking freely without having to worry. It’s a chance to be free; to celebrate Spring and life. It’s rare to see any kind of conflict or for there to be any problems even with all that alcohol. If you’re keen to join along with some expats and locals, check out our page, “The Hang Out” on Facebook @tokyouhangout for upcoming events.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Live Japan.

Written by:

Nina Cataldo

Nina Cataldo

Nina is a globe trotter and storyteller, constantly seeking adventures in her motherland of Japan. She's a collector of travel brochures, a lover of cats, and a half-daring foodie. She also likes to escape Tokyo city life from time to time to discover new trails in rural Japan, where she enjoys connecting with locals and wanderers alike. By profession, Nina is the co-author and editor of DUO Elements, a conversational English book series. Follow her on Instagram @nextstop_nina or Facebook @ninamcataldo.

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