A different way of enjoying Japanese culture – follow the blossoms

If you want a Japanese holiday that has a different focus and a relaxed approach to moving northwards, stopping at the major towns and their public gardens, then this is the trip for you. Photographic opportunities abound, the weather is generally good (although still cool in the evenings) and you can share the sense of relief at winter’s end by joining a hanami party and toasting the coming of summer with a few glasses of umeshu.

Springtime cherry blossoms in Japan

Cherry blossom (sakura) season in the spring is beloved by Japanese locals and visitors alike. Although the season lasts only a month in any one place (typically April in Tokyo and Kyoto), the phenomenon can be followed, as the blossoms open, in towns and cities from the south to the north of Japan. Cherry blossoms open as early as mid-January on the southern Okinawa islands. In Hokkaido in the far north, they bloom as late as mid-May.

Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties

The season is one to celebrate. For the Japanese it means the end of winter and a time to enjoy the slowly warming evenings. Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties involve a picnic under the drifting blossoms. Young office workers sit under the trees in city parks and much laughter ensues as umeshu (Japanese plum liqueur) and traditional bento boxes (filled with seasonal fare) are consumed. While cherry trees bloom overhead, gardens are full of flowers such as daffodils, tulips, peonies and azaleas. It is also a popular time for weddings and couples in full traditional clothing can be spotted being photographed in front of the blossom trees. Food stalls around city parks sell delicious treats such as roasted chestnuts, takoyaki (balls of fried batter filled with pieces of octopus) and okonomiyaki (savoury Japanese pancakes).

The cherry blossom trail from south to north

The cherry blossom forecast for each year is normally posted online by January. An ideal hanami route would begin in Okinawa, which has a humid, subtropical climate. This region is renowned for its diving and white sand beaches. Better-known stops on the way north, recognised for hanami, include Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Yokohama, Tokyo, Nara, Nagano and Sendai. The final stop is Sapporo on Hokkaido and the centre of Japan’s best-known skiing region.

Kyoto’s beautiful Philosopher’s Path, from the Silver Pavilion to Nanzenji Temple

Most Japanese cities have beautiful walks, graced by the cherry trees. The Philosopher’s Path, in Kyoto, a gentle 90-minute stroll alongside a stream, starts at the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) and ends at Nanzenji Temple, at the base of the forested Higashiyama Mountains. This is one of the most important Zen temples in Japan, and both the Pavilion and Temple grounds are filled with flowering trees and shrubs in the spring, and gold, red and orange leaves of deciduous trees in the autumn.

Travelling by train in Japan

The best way to get around Japan is by train, and preferably the Shinkansen, or bullet train. Save money by buying a Japan Rail Pass before you depart for Japan. The Shinkansen is always punctual, modern and spotless. It is very easy to book seats, which is recommended, particularly in popular travel times such as spring.

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