A Cherry Blossom Expert’s Guide to Flower Viewing

In Japan, once the cherry blossoms start blooming it seems to be all anyone talks about. We asked the secretary general of the Japan Cherry Blossom Association, Asada Nobuyuki, about what makes cherry blossoms so alluring and how to make the most of flower-viewing season.

Pale Pink Signs of the Advent of Spring

As spring approaches, Japanese people wait in anticipation for the cherry blossoms to come into bloom. The flowering of the cherries, or sakura in Japanese, signal the end of winter and get people excited for the warmer days ahead.

Cherry blossoms along the Meguro River in Tokyo, famous for beautifully scattering petals along the surface of the water.

 “Somei yoshino, the most popular species of cherry, have a darker color to their buds, but as they continue to bloom, their color changes into a light pink,” says Asada Nobuyuki, secretary general of the Japan Cherry Blossom Association. For me, what’s truly enjoyable about flower viewing is witnessing that change in color. The sight of the petals scattering from their branches, dancing along the ground, has a special charm to it, and seeing petals scattered over the surface of the water is a whole different experience.

Asada stresses that there are various ways to enjoy the trees. “Cherry blossoms only bloom for about ten days. I hope that people will not simply just look forward to the short time where they are in full bloom but rather enjoy all the trees’ stages during the season.”

The Japan Cherry Blossom Association, primarily concerned with making gifts of cherry trees, also works to help protect and plant the deciduous flora. The group is well known in Japan for its list of the “Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots” in the country, an essential guide for anyone looking to get their fill of flower viewing. Asada, himself an arborist, takes care of and examines cherry trees that are slated to be donated while also surveying growing environments and educating tree growers.

Secretary general of the Japan Cherry Blossom Association, Asada Nobuyuki.

People in rowboats enjoy the flowers alongside the Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo.

A Plethora of Different Cherry Blossoms

Cherry trees grow throughout Japan. The cherry-blossom front for somei yoshino travels north up the archipelago over a period of around a month, which can seem like both a long and short span of time. The advancing lines of the front connect all the areas where somei yoshino cherries burst into flower at the same time, their flowers typically coming into full bloom around 5 to 10 days after the buds start to open. Flowers begin to bloom in the area spanning Kyūshū to Tokyo around the end of March, while their northern counterparts in Aomori and Hokkaidō start in late April. In Kyūshū, with its warm climate, another type of cherry known as yamazakura begin to bloom in late February, appearing even before spring makes it to the island.

A flowering somei yoshino.While the somei yoshino, or Prunus x yedoensis, species was originally bred in Japan, cherry blossoms can also be found growing wild in other countries around the world such as China, Nepal, and the United States. Many different species have been discovered and cultivated over the years.

“Plants can be split up into two general classifications: wild species and cultivated species. There are ten types of wild cherry blossoms in Japan, including yamazakura, ōshimazakura, edohigan, and the kanhizakura native to Okinawa, and there are said to be around thirty species of wild cherry blossoms in China. What I believe catches people’s attention about Japanese cherry blossoms is that there are a multitude of different cultivated species that have been preserved here over time. I’m sure that the reason that there are so many different species that have been cultivated in Japan is that the Japanese people have a real affinity for them and for their beguiling, transient nature,” states Asada.

However, the cherry blossom was not always the symbol of Japan it is today. During the Nara period (710794), when Japan was most influenced by Chinese culture, the word for flower in Japanese poetry alluded to the plum blossom rather than the cherry. In the Heian period (7941185), the beauty of the cherry blossoms came into vogue and they began to appear in poetry, literature, and picture scrolls. Later in history the word flower came to be synonymous with the cherry blossom, with cultivation of new species progressing throughout the Edo period (16031868), including the somei yoshino species, which was created in the mid-nineteenth century. The sturdiness of the trees and their brilliant blooms paved the way for their popularity throughout the country, eventually reaching the point where the cherry blossom came to serve as a symbol of Japan itself.

Shidarezakura in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park. This drooping form of tree is one type of the edohigan flowering cherry.

Finding Your Own Special Sakura

Japan visitors wondering where to enjoy the sakura might pick a location from the “Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots” list, available in Japanese on the Japan Cherry Blossom Association website. Great spots to go flower viewing in Tokyo include Ueno Park, Sumida Park, known since the Edo period for its cherries, and Koganei Park, where visitors can see 1,700 cherry trees from over 50 different varieties.

Asada, one of the list’s authors, says he hopes people will read it and discover somewhere that suits their tastes. The list is not just a simple ranking system—the only order it has is from Hokkaidō in the north to Kyūshū and Okinawa in the south—but rather spotlights locations where the cherry trees are in harmony with the surrounding environment or help to improve the area’s natural beauty, along with places where the trees are well maintained. 

People picnicking in Sumida Park in Tokyo.

Nowadays, people coming from all over the world eagerly make the cherry blossoms a part of their springtime travel itineraries. We asked Asada what the best way is to enjoy flower viewing when on a tight schedule.

“Flower viewing in Japan is not simply about looking at the flowers, but gathering together with friends and family and enjoying each other’s company beneath the blossoms. Enjoying that communal aspect of Japanese culturenot just the flowers themselves—is something I hope visitors will do when they go flower viewing. Also, don’t just go visit the famous spots; if you happen to see a lone cherry tree nearby where you are staying, make sure to go see it as well. The flowers’ beauty changes throughout the day, from morning to evening. I hope people will find a place where they can make lasting memories, something they can carry back home with them in their hearts.”

Cherry blossoms on the banks of the Shirakawa in Kyoto’s Gion district.

(Originally published in Japanese on March 31, 2018. Written by Abe Manami. Photos by Kodera Kei. Banner photo: Cherry blossoms by the Meguro River in Tokyo.)

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