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It’s sakura season again in Japan, a time where the entire country erupts in an explosion of pink and white blooms and visitors from around the world flock to witness and photograph these exquisite flowers. In Tokyo, you’ll find myriad varieties of cherry blossoms, the most common being the lighter-coloured Somei Yoshino (Yoshino Cherry) and Yamazakura. But if you can catch them contrasted against a darker pink variety like the Kawazuzakura, you can consider yourself luckier than a maneki-neko waving cat!
But why is the world so fascinated with sakura?
To the Japanese, the delicate cherry blossom represents the transience of life, lasting for just two short weeks from the moment of flowering (kaika) to full bloom (mankai). For the tourist, sakura is the ultimate cultural jackpot – a hedging of bets on the perfect time to be in Tokyo to indulge in hanami, the custom of viewing these spectacularly ephemeral flowers. In 2020, the first flowers are forecast to open on March 19, with mankai following about a week later from March 27.
Wondering where to see sakura in Tokyo? To guide you along, here are 10 of the best places and ways to view the sakura in Japan’s capital.
Just across the road from Yasukuni Shrine is the expansive Kitanomaru National Garden. Lush and inviting compared to Yasukuni’s austere formality, this is one of the few places which offers a magical lake view, with long branches of cherry blossoms hanging over the water.
You can even rent a little boat and row up to the most flower-laden branch of your choice. Enjoy a private sakura session for as long as you like without other people crowding your personal space. Only drawback? Expect queues at the boat rental especially at this time of the year.
Chidorigafuchi Park, whose name means “plovers’ pool” because of its unusual shape, traces the western moat of the Imperial Palace. In the evening, the setting is especially tranquil, with sprays of somei yoshino framing the view of the water and people picnicking under a cherry tree.
For a full-on, continuous view, you can walk an almost 3-kilometre (2 miles) route that starts from Hibiya Park all the way to the promenade at the top of the hill. But if that’s too much flora for you, start in the middle of the park by getting there from Hanzomon station.
Yasukuni Shrine is a curious combination of controversy and cherry blossoms, where the war dead and a very important somei yoshino tree spark intense interest, although for very different reasons.
The latter is Tokyo’s representative cherry tree used by the Meteorological Agency to indicate the arrival of sakura season – think of it as the botanical equivalent of Punxsutawney Phil, the famous weather-predicting groundhog of Pennsylvania. Only when more than five of its blossoms open is then the official start of sakura season declared.
There is an entrance fee of ¥500 (USD$4.55) for Shinjuku Gyoen but it hardly deters the thousands of locals and tourists who descend on the sprawling gardens to loll under the canopy of sakura and hanami all day – even if alcohol is not allowed.
With its huge grounds, it is possible to find a quiet bench to gaze at a solitary cherry tree without being jostled by someone trying to take a photo. If you’re lucky, loose petals might also float slowly to the ground for that perfect Instagram moment.
Botanical buffs will also find the rest of the national garden interesting; Shinjuku Gyoen is, after all, one of the most important gardens from the Meiji era. It consists of three distinct gardens, each with its own style, design and flora.
Next to transport hub Ueno Station is Ueno Park, well-known for its zoo and museums. As a large public park, Ueno is famous for its proliferation of cherry blossom trees – an eye-popping 1,000 to be exact!
Little wonder then that it is considered one of the most fun spots in Tokyo during sakura season, with large and lively hanami parties, creating a very distinct atmosphere during this time of the year. Don’t leave without visiting the many temples and shrines in the park, as well as the oldest and largest museum in Japan, the Tokyo National Museum.
In the vicinity of Fraser Suites Akasaka is the upscale Ark Hills development. It is a massive office complex with nice restaurants and cafes but just behind it in the quiet undulating streets are foreign embassies, luxury apartments and 150 cherry trees stretching over a kilometre long. Their verdant blooms are illuminated at night to stunning effect, creating a sakura wonderland of charming winding roads.
One particularly great spot for photos is the tree arch at Izumi-dori, a cherry blossom “tunnel” where there are more selfie-takers on the road than cars. Since few tourists know about this area, it is more pleasant than most sakura spots. One note of caution though: don’t get there too late as the lights go out at about 10pm.
Another popular sakura spot close to Fraser Suites Akasaka is Meiji Jingu Gaien. The park is named after the nearby Meiji Shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, modern Japan’s first emperor who presided over that transformative era in Japanese history.
Home to around 500 cherry trees, the ground is usually covered in sakura petals, which makes walking around the garden a unique experience. The park is also home to a number of sporting facilities, including a golf driving range, ice skating rink, a kids’ park and a stadium where one can catch pro-league baseball games. For appreciators of art, a Meiji-era picture gallery sits here as well.
If there are crowds at Shinjuku Gyoen, be prepared for an even larger crowd at Meguro. This usually happens in the evening near Naka-meguro station, when the lanterns under the trees are lit and where the river is narrower so that the cherry blossoms on opposite banks brush against one another like shy lovers.
It is a mesmerising scene attracting so many people that wardens are required for crowd control! Wardens also carry signs to guide the throng on a Sakura Route, which winds around a short stretch of the river with cafes and food stalls on both sides.
If you prefer a more pleasant experience without the crowds, walk south along the roughly 3-kilometre-long Meguro River Cherry Blossom Promenade. The river may be wider and there’s no verdant archway for photos, but it is still beautiful and infinitely more peaceful.
Also near Fraser Suites Akasaka is Tokyo Midtown, an upmarket complex with offices, shops and restaurants. Many of the eateries are perfectly positioned for a good view of the 150 or so cherry trees that line the streets around the complex.
Dining at a restaurant here has to be the ideal hanami, with table service and not a single groundsheet in sight. Take your pick from either indoors or al fresco dining under the trees here. Other spots to visit in this ‘city within a city’ are the Galleria shopping mall, adjacent Hinokicho Park and Suntory Museum of Art, due to reopen in May following renovations.
For the ultimate experience, how about a sakura tour by car? Nihon Kotsu is a taxi and limousine company that also offers sightseeing tours with an English-speaking driver.
In spring, a special sakura package includes a guide which will take you and your company to view some of the most popular sakura spots – an exclusive service with maximum comfort and convenience!
While Tokyo is awash with prime hanami spots, Fraser Suites Akasaka’s location in the heart of town is perfect for you to go sakura-hunting and enjoy the luxury of space the brand new serviced apartment provides in the bustling, sophisticated neighbourhood of Akasaka.
If you’re staying in Japan for long, don’t miss the chance to visit Osaka, just under a 3-hour bullet train ride away from Tokyo. Known for its historic attractions, modern architecture and gourmet options, you can catch the blooms here while feasting on both history and its myriad of culinary delights.