With cherry blossom season comes a vibrant change in Tokyo’s scenery. Nick Narigon visits the top viewing spots.
The sakura, or cherry blossom, is revered in Japan, not only for its elegance but also for its Buddhism indoctrines. As spring arrives, Tokyo is awash with the delicate pink and white blossoms for little more than a week before the ground is littered with the fallen petals. This fleeting existence is considered a metaphor for life, which should be cherished before it’s gone. Tens of thousands of visitors swarm Tokyo for hanami season, which lasts from March to April across the country. Hunting down the perfect location to enjoy a peaceful, or wild hanami experience can be a tad overwhelming, which is why we’ve done it for you…
The party hunt: Ueno Park
With more than 1,000 cherry trees lining its walkways, Ueno Park is the park scene of hanami season. Expect the park to be packed elbow to elbow with revellers who aren’t necessarily there to see the cherry blossoms, but to see and be seen. Kind of like a sorority mixer. Bring your blue tarp early if you want to ‘book’ a spot. Alternatively, join the hipsters at Yoyogi Park. Thanks to the throngs, mobile phone service is spotty at best and the bathroom queues stretch to the National Stadium.
Ueno Park: 5-20 Ueno Koen, Taito (Ueno Station, park exit).
Yoyogi Park: 2-1 Yoyogi Kamizounocho, Shibuya
The relaxed hunt: Shinjuku Gyoen
Here things are a bit more subdued. Beverages are not allowed, security guards check bags at the gate and there is a ¥200 (Dhs7) fee to keep out the riff-raff. This does mean that you’ll probably be strolling alongside most of Tokyo’s senior citizen population (and be elbowed aside by one of them fighting for the perfect photo) but with 1,500 cherry trees it is well worth the trip. This is possibly Tokyo’s most beautiful green space, complete with teahouse for thirsty explorers.
11 Naito-cho, Shinjuku (Shinjukugyoenmae, Shinjuku stations).
The skiff hunt: Chidorigafuchi
Visited by more than one million people every year, Chidorigafuchi Park offers a one-of-a-kind hanami experience. Enthusiasts can rent a paddle boat at the refurbished boathouse and drift along the moat adjacent to the Imperial Palace. With the trees lit up at night, seafarers can float through a magical tunnel of illuminated sakura. The park’s Yoshino cherry trees were originally a gift from British diplomat Ernest Satow, who planted them here as a gift to the people of Tokyo.
1-2 Kojimachi, Chiyoda (Hanzomon station, exit 3). Boat rental ¥800 for 30 mins.
The twilight hunt: Rikugien Gardens
North of Tokyo in the Komagome area, Rikugien Garden is a pleasant traditional Japanese garden that stays open until 9pm. The weeping cherry blossoms are illuminated with floodlights. The blossoms here bloom a few days earlier than most parks, so it’s worth stopping by before the crowds descend.
6 Honkomagome, Bunkyo (Komagome station).
The romantic hunt: Kiyosumi Gardens
This little spot is on the east side of the Sumida River. An artificial pond, hill and river were built during the Meiji period to entertain employees and guests of the Mitsubishi Corporation. Today couples and small groups enjoy this tranquil park, which provides numerous benches parked beneath the cherry trees.
3 Kiyosumi, Koto (Kiyosumi-Shirakawa station).
The swanky hunt: Roppongi Hills
High-end shopping. Upscale restaurants. Five-star hotels. Roppongi Hills is where the rich and richer spend their free time, and hanami season is no different. The garden behind Roppongi Hills Mori Tower claims 75 cherry blossoms and Keyakizaka Street (just behind the tower) is lined with sakura, all of which are illuminated at night.
6-10-1 Roppongi, Minato (Roppongi station, exit 1).
The adventure hunt: Yomiuri Land
Not everybody gets to experience hanami from a rollercoaster. Yomiuri Land has no less than 1,000 cherry trees and is still unheralded. Relatively few people attend the amusement park for the sakura despite the fact the Bandit rollercoaster set the record for the fastest hanami experience.
4015-1 Yanokuchi, Inagi (Keioyomiuri-land station).
The bicycle hunt: Inokashira
To see the cherry blossoms on two wheels, head out from Hamadayama and bike along the Kanda River to Inokashira Park in Kichijoji. While the river itself features patches of sakura, Inokashira Park is a favourite place for hanami, especially among young families. With a petting zoo, boats to paddle around the spring-fed pond and the soft-serve ice-cream at Mizuki, the 250 cherry trees aren’t the only draw.
1-18-31 Gotenyama, Musashino (Kichijoji station, park exit, Inokashirakoen station).
The weekend hunt
See the sakura outside of Tokyo and enjoy a mini getaway while you’re at it
The Historic Hunt: Kamakura
Enjoy a day trip to view the 300 cherry trees at Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura. The tree-lined approach that leads from the station to the shrine is one of Kamakura’s most popular hanami spots. While sightseers can escape Tokyo, don’t expect to escape the crowds as thousands flock to this ancient capital city.
2-1-31 Yukinoshita, Kamakura, Kanagawa (Kamakura Station, approx 50 mins from Tokyo).
The Hikers’ Hunt: Mt Kobo
Strap on your hiking boots and head out to Mt Kobo, just an hour southwest from Shinjuku. This two-and-a-half hour hike to the peak (235m) can be strenuous, but the view is worth the trouble. Mount Fuji and Sagami Bay are also visible to see from the sakura-ringed summit.
Hadano, Kanagawa (30-min walk from Hadano Station, approx 80 mins from Tokyo).
Stay overnight: Jinya Ryokan offers a soothing onsen. Guest houses from Dhs1,470 per night. 2-8-24 Tsurumaki-kita, Hadano, Kanagawa. (+81 463 77 1300), www.jinya-ryokan.jp.
The Medieval Hunt: Odawara Castle
This is one of the best hanami spots in Japan with 350 cherry trees surrounding the main keep and moat. Originally built in the 15th-century, the reconstructed castle is a refurbishment of the former home of the prestigious Hojo family. Don’t miss the Sakura Festival, which features traditional dance and music.
6-1 Jonai, Odawara, Kanagawa (Odawara Station: Tokaido line, approx 100 mins from Tokyo; JR Tokaido Shinkansen, approx 35 mins from Tokyo).
Stay overnight: Just 20 minutes from the castle by train, Yumoto Fujiya Hotel offers a comfortable bed for those looking to extend their visit. Rooms from Dhs269 per night. 256-1 Yumoto, Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimo, Kanagawa. (+81 460 85 6111), www.yumotofujiya.jp.
The Late Bloomer Hunt: Hakone
If you missed hanami season in Tokyo, or if you just didn’t get your fill, take the train to Hakone where the cherry blossoms bloom a week or two later. Stroll down the Hayakawa River, stop by Gora Park or head to Hakone-en on the shore of Lake Ashinoko. The trees here are over 80 years old.
Hakone-Yumoto Station (take the Odakyu line’s ‘Romance Car’ from Shinjuku Station, approx 85 mins from Tokyo).
Stay overnight: Try the historic rooms of Mikawaya Ryokan, from Dhs628 per person. 503 Kowakidani, Hakone-Machi, Ashigarashimo, Kanagawa. (+81 460 82 2231), www.hakone-mikawaya.com.