Hanami, which means flower viewing in Japanese, is a grand affair for young and old. With picnic baskets filled with home-made bentos and sushi, it's a time for family and friends to gather and bond under the cherry blossom trees. It also signifies the dawn of spring and warmer days to come. Goodbye dreary winter!
Hanami spots are aplenty but there's only a short window of time to admire the ephemeral blooms. Faced with too many choices and limited time (and budget), I referred to Internet reviews of cherry blossom spots and blooming forecasts in planning my hanami excursions.
Here are my picks:
Mount Yoshino, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is regarded as the best hanami spot in Japan. The mountain has a whopping 30,000 cherry blossom trees so the explosion of colours is truly a sight to behold. It took an hour of uphill walk to this vantage point atop the mountain and it was worth every drop of sweat!
Philosopher's Path (Kyoto)
I remember standing at the start of the Philosopher's Path agape at the sea of pink that greeted me. The 2km stone path which lies between Nanzenji and Ginkaku-ji is lined with hundreds of cherry blossoms trees. Food stalls along the path were selling sakura flavored food products such as ice cream, mochi, and chocolates. There is no such thing as sakura overdose.
Keage Incline (Kyoto)
This is pretty near to the Nanzenji neighbourhood on one end of the Philosopher's Path. Behind the Nanzenji temple, there's a trail along the aqueduct that leads to the Keage Incline. The Keage Incline was used to transport canal boats from the Okazaki Canal to canals at a higher elevation. This gentle slope is now lined with sakura trees on both sides.
A small district in the outskirts of Kyoto known for its spring and autumnal colours. An hour train ride away from Kyoto, it makes for a perfect day trip and there are so many activities to do there - boating, cycling, exploring the temples and bamboo grove.
Osaka Castle Park
Unlike most places where the sakura trees are concentrated in an area, they are distributed across the spacious grounds surrounding the castle. With large pockets of green spaces, it is ideal for having big group picnics. The park was very crowded when we got there in the late morning, with all the prime spots under the prettiest sakura trees occupied. What was especially memorable was the lively atmosphere, filled with lots of happy chatter and laughter.
While the above are popular hanami spots among locals, cherry blossom trees are planted in most places in Japan and one does not need to travel far to see them. In the small town of Hirakata where my exchange university was located, I was surprised to find a line of cherry blossom trees in the neighbourhood park during a leisure stroll.
Hanami season is not just about admiring and photographing the pretty cherry blossoms. To the Japanese, it is a communal activity where family, friends and colleagues come together and simply spend time with each other. With good company and such beautiful views, it's one of the greatest enjoyments in life.