The sky darkened with promise of a downpour, droplets landing on my outstretched map. Sheltering under a tree, I traced my finger over Shinto symbols to gauge the direction of the Philosopher’s Path.
When a gust of wet wind threw my map out of my hands, I was suddenly engulfed in a flurry of pink; encircled by a swirl of cascading petals tumbling gracefully from stark, black branches. They collected in the hood of my coat, on my hair and stroked like velvet over my hands.
It was in that moment of magic, surrounded by sakura springtime beauty, that I understood why cherry blossom viewing in Japan is such a treasured national pastime and why so many tourists, like myself, cross the world to watch flowers bloom and release in a fleeting and delicate dance.
Of course, Japan is an incredible country to visit all year round, with steaming summers on the beaches of Okinawa, fiery autumn hues during the fall (sakura season’s equally impressive counterpart), as well as icy winters filled with snow sports in Hokkaido, delicacies such as hairy crab and snow monkeys relaxing in natural onsen baths.
Yet, nothing quite compares to cherry blossom viewing in Japan during sakura season, which is as much about the visual spectacle as it is about the country’s culture, people and way of life.
Here is our guide to visiting Japan during the spring and how to make the most out of the cherry blossoms, from sakura viewing to hanami picnics to appreciating how the cherry blossom has become a national symbol for the Japanese.
The significance of cherry blossom viewing in Japan
Beyond the photogenic candyfloss clumps, there lies a symbolic meaning to cherry blossom viewing in Japan. Spring brings new life, renewal and rebirth, whilst the quick turnaround of sakura from bud to falling petal is a reminder of the fleeting nature of life, and the beauty that lies in that transience.
This Japanese philosophy of mono no aware is the appreciation of ephemeral things. So, although hanami gatherings of friends and family may be full of laughter and fun (see below), there is a very introspective element to cherry blossom viewing in Japan as well.
Life is short and the two-week period of falling cherry blossom petals invites us to think about making the most of our time on Earth and our plans for the future.
What is hanami?
During sakura season, Japanese gather with colleagues, family and friends to enjoy the cherry blossoms, combining blossom viewing with picnics to celebrate the change in season.
The tradition of hanami (literally meaning "watching blossoms") dates back thousands of years, with groups gathering under the cherry trees to eat, drink and be merry.
At night, the festivities continue with yozakura; the romantic nightime viewing of the cherry blossoms with your significant other.