It is the most wonderful time of the year again! An ephemeral window of time when winter melts into spring and a pink blush sprinkles joy and magic all over Japan. The simple act of sitting under a cherry blossom tree can be profound: as I relax under the pink canopies, I listen to the birds sing and feel the sun’s rays, and a tranquil bliss washes over me. I am reminded the importance of the lesson of sakura - to appreciate that our days, although they vapour as quickly as the morning dew, are meaningful and worthy to be lived to the fullest, nevertheless.
My 2018 cherry blossom season was more beautiful (and exhausting) than I could have imagined. This cherry blossom season, I am excited to re-visit my favourite and discover new favourite hanami spots and take in this otherworldly wonder more slowly and deeply (and worry less about getting to all the spots on my list because, as with many things in life, the list does not end). I will try to update this periodically throughout the sakura season but recommend following my IG stories for real time updates!
2018 Sakura Diary: HERE
2019 Sakura Forecast: HERE
Sakura map: BELOW. I find it super useful to visualise where the sakura spots are on a map so I know where they are relative to each other - and who doesn’t like sakura map markers ;) The map has two layers: (1) spots from 2019 sakura diary - will be updated as the season progresses; and (2) spots from 2018 sakura diary. You can toggle between the layers or see one or both simultaneously. The big sakura spots are my favourites /”must-see”s and the other markers show smaller sakura spots. You can save (click on the star) a copy of the map onto your google map ;)
Friday 29 March - Sakura hunting in Yanaka and UEno
Last year, it was Aoyama Cemetery and this year, it is Yanaka Cemetery. To some, viewing cherry blossoms at a cemetery may be strange but I think it is fitting as cherry blossoms symbolise the brevity and transience of life. The grounds of Yanaka Cemetery is expansive and peaceful, with a beautiful sakura tunnel through the middle. Between Aoyama and Yanaka, my pick goes to Yanaka Cemetery as it is bigger with more sakura trees and more space to set up some creative shots. You can also see a peak of Skytree. This week has been unusually cold which has also slowed down the flowering process so I would say full bloom will be expected this weekend in Tokyo. Today, I was (very) under-dressed for the weather (temperature was under 10C!) but nevertheless spent a wonderful hour exploring the area.
Our fingers were almost frozen by now so we went in search of lunch in Yanaka. We ended up at Hagiso near Yanaka Ginza which serves delicious (and hot!) curry lunch sets - recommend if you are in the area! Along the way, we found more beautiful and very grand cherry blossom trees around playgrounds and temples. Yanaka is a traditional neighbourhood with many modest temples and pretty side streets so a great area to explore on its own.
After lunch, we made our way to Ueno Park which is often named in lists of Tokyo’s top sakura spots. It is popular and crowded (definitely a contrast to Yanaka) so avoid weekends if possible. However I can understand its appeal - the park is huge with lots of sakura spots within in. We started at the famous avenue of cherry blossom trees along the main street of Ueno Park - approaching full bloom (~80%) so think this weekend/early next week will be even more impressive.
The cherry blossom avenue had a lively atmosphere but for photos I recommend walking towards Ueno Tōshō-gū (上野東照宮) (still in the park) for beautiful scenery of shrine and cherry blossoms.
We ended the day enjoying some hot snacks by the edge of Shinobazu Pond within Ueno Park - it has beautiful cherry trees almost dipping into the pond and boat rides operating (would have been more tempting on a warmer day personally). All in all, a wonderful day out filled with cherry blossoms and can’t wait for Tokyo to reach peak blossom mode this weekend :)
Sunday 24 March - Sunday at the temple
I ventured to a new part of Tokyo today - to Mitsuzoin Temple (密蔵院), north of Tokyo, to see some beautiful anko sakura (安行桜) in full bloom. This variety of sakura blooms around one week earlier than the Somei Yoshino (which seems to have just opened in Tokyo) and has a darker pink colour and smaller petals. There were dozens of anko sakura trees planted around the temple complex, including along the approach to the temple to create a beautiful sakura tunnel. It was a great place for a leisurely walk and hanami and definitely felt more like Kyoto than Tokyo! It seemed to be popular amongst locals (there was a steady stream of people but not overly crowded). Access (about 1h from Tokyo): take a bus from either 川口駅 Kawaguchi Station (JR) or 草加駅 Soka Station (Tobu Railways).
Thursday 21 March - Spring equinox and it officially starts!
The cherry blossom season officially starts in Tokyo (and Fukuoka) today after the Meteorological Agency confirmed that more than five blossoms had opened on the representative Somei-Yoshino cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine - the standard for determining the start of the cherry blossom season. Full bloom is expected in a week’s time - who is excited?! 8th forecast is below - as the season progresses, the yellow boxes will turn orange once the Meteorological Agency considers flowering has started or reached full bloom. Will be interesting to see how accurate it is in two weeks time!
Even though the Somei-yoshino trees have only started to flower, my favourite garden Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑) has other varieties which are in full bloom. It has become a little tradition of mine to visit this huge sakura tree by Tamamo Pond (nearest entrance is Okido Gate) every year - full bloom on 24/3 last year when I visited. It is impressive in size and framed perfectly by the bridge and pond. PS - very happy to see Shinjuku Gyoen has extended opening hours (last entry at 5:30pm, closing at 6pm) so you can actually take sunset photos there. Although the single entry price has increased from JPY200 to JPY500 but annual passport price has remained at JPY2,000 which makes the annual pass such good value now (I visited this garden 4 times during cherry blossom season last year)!
THE LEAD UP
Mid-March - Sakura in the city
Last year, I visited lots of Tokyo sakura spots in beautiful natural landscapes - parks, gardens, streams and mountains. But the city itself has alot to offer - there may not be rows and rows of cherry trees, but a well-placed sakura tree can brighten up and soften the (at times) monotonous urban cityscape.
This was embodied by the lone sakura tree I found on an afternoon walk around Shiba Park (as a sidenote, I have started doing more morning/afternoon walks near my apartment/office and discovered so many local gems!). It seems to be an early blooming variety as it was in full bloom on 16/3. The plaque on it said: Prunus cerasifera Pissardii (アカバスモモ). I think this picture sum sums up Tokyo pretty well: cherry blossom + Tokyo Tower + golden hour glow as a bonus!
Nihonbashi is a commercial district of Tokyo (akin to the “City” of London or the CBD of Sydney) with high-end department stores so I was surprised to find sakura-lined streets here! It was very different to seeing sakura trees in parks as people paid little attention to them (except me), more focused on getting on with their day. To get to the aptly named Sakura-dori, exit Mitsukoshi-mae (三越前) Station and head towards Fukutoku Shrine (and you will see the tree of light) and then you want to get onto the street where Byron Bay Coffee (great cafe to visit!) is. Both day/night time views should be good. The Nihonbashi Sakura Festival is on 15/3-7/4 in the area with illuminations and special sakura menus/products in restaurants/shops (I visited 17/3).
Not to be outdone by Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree also has a Kawazu sakura tree near its base. This Kawazu tree is very popular and even has its own google map marker - look for the “河津桜” marker near the Tobu Bridge, 5mins walk from Skytree. This is the same early-blooming Kawazu blossom that came from Kawazu (which makes for a great daytrip from Tokyo!).
5-7 March Coffeeshop hunting
Starting my 2019 diary with the most beautiful coffee shop front at Koffee Mameya in Omotesando (I don’t drink coffee but there is another big drawcard here ;))! If you read my 2018 diary, this stone path and 36 gold squares may look familiar, simple elements to highlight the sakura bonsai plant. I didn’t realise the plant would change from year to year and I love the elongated shape of this year’s plant . I returned a second time on a cloudy day to shoot this without the shadows - I love both photos but think the one without shadow allows you to focus fully on the sakura :)