OFF INTO THE WILD WET YONDER How does this...
An Insider’s Guide to Hanami in Japan
(Editor’s note: As spring rolls around again, we’d like to share this one from our archives. Originally posted April, 2015.)
No one should need an excuse to drink a cold beer outside, especially on a nice spring day. But for those that do, Japan’s hanami (花見/flower viewing) season is as good a reason as any.
Dating back to around the Nara Period (710–794), hanami was originally associated with Ume (梅/plum blossoms), which tend to open several weeks before the now much more commonly associated Sakura (桜/cherry blossoms). And while Ume viewing is still popular among many, especially those looking for a quieter atmosphere and more of a “walking” viewing (as it can still be pretty cold in February when these blossoms appear), the vast majority of Japan now leans heavily toward Sakura hanami parties.
These parties are a fun outing for family members, groups of friends, coworkers, or even gokon (合コン/parties with an equal number of guys and girls, usually single or at least looking for fun). All consist of a picnic (of sorts), or even better a barbecue, underneath the blossoms in parks or near the area castle or shrine.
For the best spots, groups will often “reserve” days in advance by laying out big blue tarps and camping overnight to maintain their claim to this prime piece of viewing real estate. For those wanting an ideal spot but not willing to camp out, it is extremely common for companies to send newly hired or lower-level staff to the park early in the morning to lay out tarps and just squat there for the entire day until everyone finishes work.
Many cities hang electric paper lanterns so that parties can carry on late into the evening. As well, popular spots most always have yatai (屋台/street vendor stalls) serving traditional festival-style food and drinks.
While each regional area will offer its local specialties, you’ll most likely always have easy access to at least yakitori (焼鳥/grilled chicken skewers), okonomiyaki (お好み焼き/a savory cabbage, meat, and seafood pancake topped with a sweet brown worcestershire-like sauce and mayonnaise), and takoyaki (たこ焼き/octopus dumplings topped with a similar, but slightly thicker and sweeter brown sauce and mayonnaise).
Also on offer at yatai is beer, beer, and more beer. However, if craft brew is your craving then you best BYOB.
So after all of that, where should you go?
While many choose to “follow the hanami” from south Japan up to the north, let’s presume you have neither the time nor inclination for that and instead focus on just a key few in the Tokyo area.
Ueno Park is especially popular. However, both Yoyogi and Inokashira parks also offer lively crowds and lots of nice “scenery” other than the blossoms. As well, Aoyama Bochi (a cemetery) is surprisingly good fun and often overlooked.
Having said that, those looking for a “hanami hookup” are probably best served by sticking to Yoyogi Park. Even better, it is walking distance to Shibuya for revelers in search of a nightcap. And while it is certainly possible to meet wandering around the park, best is to notice who is where in the surrounding vicinity when setting up your tarp/picnic spot.
Not a big drinker? Smaller parks and less popular destinations offer the same beautiful blossoms without the rowdiness. Weekday afternoons are also usually quieter and make a nicer time for a family picnic. Shinjuku Gyoen is ideal for this as the small entrance fee seemingly works as crowd control.
Feeling more active or adventurous? Then head to the mountains for even more breathtaking yamazakura (山桜/mountain or wild cherry blossoms). Okutama Dam is a decent spot and has a moderate hiking trail that connects to Mt. Mitake. Or for an easier walk, one could just go around the reservoir. Riversides also often offer nice walking paths and usually have some Sakura trees in parts. Sumida River even offers relaxing boat cruises, although advanced booking is strongly recommended.
The point is, whatever your pleasure, hanami is arguably the best season in Japan. Spring temperatures and cherry blossom trees in full bloom make for a perfect match to enjoy being outside. Whether it’s a huge Saturday barbecue and drinking session in Yoyogi Park that goes late into the evening or a quiet mountain hike in the country, mid March–April is the time to be in Japan.