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Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom: Japan 2016

If you follow on social media anyone who lives or is currently travelling in Japan, you are probably overloaded with photos of cherry blossom! I’ve been in their shoes myself. The views of blooming sakura are so beautiful that you just can’t help sharing them with other people. Like the beautiful photos, sent to me by my good friend, Moto, from Kamakura.

So I’ve dug into my own photo archive and chosen a few photos from our trip to Japan back in spring 2016. and added some commentaries.

Cherry blossom in Kamakura (Click on each image to open full screen)

We arrived when sakura was just starting to blossom and left when it was already coming to the end. So it was so cool to see how it was developing from Tokyo to Kyoto, then to Hiroshima, back to Osaka stopping for a couple of hours at Himeji to see the castle and then to Hakone and back to Tokyo.

Tokyo: first buds

We arrived in Tokyo at the end of March and it didn’t look very blossomy. It was raining and we had a few hours before we could check in our hotel. So we walked around Shinjuku, tired, overwhelmed and a bit cold.

We were trying in vain to find the Meiji Shrine. Unfortunately, we only had a very awkward map where Shinjuku and Shibuya were on different pages. So we could not connect them properly. Our portable WiFi hadn’t arrived yet so we couldn’t use Google Maps. Oh, well… At least we had a nice lunch in a very cheap and unpretentious restaurant frequented by local office workers.

Finally, we checked in and after a quick rest, my daughter and I decided to resume our search for the Meiji Shrine, while my wife went to bed and managed to sleep till the next morning. What a skill!

That time we were lucky, using my daughter’s sense of direction and Google Maps on my phone. Those who have been reading my blog for a while might remember the old design, where I used the photo of sake barrels from the Yoyogi Park, where the Meiji Shrine is located. Here’s another photo from the same day.

Yoyogi Park, Meiji Jingu
Sake barrels in Yoyogi Park, Meiji Jingu
Yoyogi Park, Meiji Jingu
Wine barrels in the Yoyogi Park, Meiji Shrine

The sake barrels are facing barrels of French wine in a way symbolising traditional and modern Japan. It’s a bit ironic that at the time the French wine was put there, sake was a dominant alcoholic drink in Japan. But now it’s all changed and wine is overselling sake by a hefty margin.

Our first proper outing for the next day was a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. There we saw the first signs of the unfolding epic of sakura blossom.

Mitaka: the start of the bloom

It was still a gentle beginning. But you could see the future power of the gentle flowers.

Inokashira Pond
Fist buds over Inokashira Pond

Inokashira pond was on the way to the Kichijoji Station, so we caught glimpses of future blossom there as well.

Kamakura: Buddhist temples and sakura

When sakura only starts blossoming, you see a lot of Japanese people taking photos of the first bloom. I’ve no idea what they do with them given that it happens every year. Probably posting on Instagram or on Line adding something like ‘すげい’. I don’t know. I understand tourists, for whom it’s probably once in a lifetime experience but for locals…

Sakura blossom craze in Kamakura (Click on each image to open full screen)

We all really liked Kamakura. It’s a beautiful area and a home of five great Zen Buddhist temples. We managed to visit only two: Engaku-ji and Kencho-ji as well as Kotoku-in, where a bronze statue of Daibutsu (The Great Buddha of Kamakura) is still sitting.

Engaku-ji, Kita Kamakura
Engaku-ji, Kita Kamakura

Engaku-ji is located next to Kita-Kamakura station. It’s a tranquil temple though it’s the largest of the five. The great movie director, Ozu Yasujiro, is buried there.

Kencho-ji, Kita Kamakura
Kencho-ji, Kita Kamakura

Founded in 1253, Kencho-ji is the oldest of the five Zen temples in Kamakura. It’s just further down from the Kita Kamakura station. It has an impressive a garden designed by the Zen master Muso Kokushi.

Hanami in Ueno Park

One of the traditions during the cherry blossom season in Japan is called ‘hanami’, translated as ‘(cherry) blossom viewing’. It’s basically a picnic party with family, friends or colleagues, when people spread blue picnic sheets under cherry trees and sit there drinking sake (kampai!) and eating food and admire the aforementioned cherry blossom.

Cherry Blossom Viewing at  Ueno Park, Tokyo
Hanami at Ueno Park, Tokyo

From the outside, it looks a bit messy. But apparently, it’s a lot of fun. As places under cherry trees are limited, it’s quite customary to send younger members of the party on the eve of the hanami to choose the place and keep it by spending a night in a sleeping bag there.

A lot of fun at Ueno Park
A lot of fun at Ueno Park

Ueno Park is one of the most popular hanami spots in Tokyo. During the season it’s so crowded that if you are not planning to have a hanami party there, or don’t like crowds, it’s probably better to avoid. Still, it’s very lively there. There is also a famous statue of Saigo Takamori there, which you might not want to miss.

Through Arima Onsen to cherry blossoms of Kyoto

Our next destination after Tokyo was Kyoto. But before going there we wanted to make a stopover in Arima Onsen to chill out after the busy Japanese capital. I’ve written about it here, so if you’ve never been there, it’s worth reading and visiting.

Sakura in Arima Onsen
Cherry blossom in Arima Onsen

After a night at Arima Onsen we came to Kyoto, the old imperial capital of Japan. I’ve read somewhere once, that Tokyo was never made capital officially. The government just moved there. So for some Japanese, Kyoto is still a true capital. Though I can’t vouch for whether it’s true or not.

Kyoto in bloom (Click on each image to open full screen)

When we arrived in Kyoto, the cherry blossom there was reaching its peak. Within the four days we stayed, we witnessed the transformation from just beautiful to absolutely amazing views.

Nara: rain, earthquake and cherry blossom

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan. Before that, each new emperor used to found its own capital. When the capital moved to Kyoto in the 8th century, Nara remained a centre of powerful Buddhist monasteries.

It was raining in Nara…

We picked a wrong day to go to Nara. It was raining, windy and cold all day. Also there was a minor earthquake which we felt nevertheless. But sakura was oblivious of all that and kept blossoming very beautifully.

Sakura blooming in Nara
Sakura blooming despite all the weather

We walked around the Todai-ji complex among tourists and the demanding deer of Nara. You could tell that those deer were from the ancient capital as they didn’t take no for an answer!

Deer in Nara, Japan
My wife in negotiating with a deer its demands

Todai-ji looked so very in sakura bloom.

Todai-ji, Nara, Sakura Blossom
Todai-ji through cherry blossom

After getting in and crawling through famous Buddha’s nostril we walked to Kasuga Taisha shrine, famous for its lanterns. Sakura blossom over the lanterns lookled magnificiant.

Sakura blossom over famous Kasuga Taisha lanterns
Sakura blossom over famous Kasuga Taisha lanterns

So the rain wasn’t an obstacle in any way for admiring sakura blossom in ancient Nara.

Kyoto: kimono day and blooming Philosopher Walk

The weather improved on the next day and we decided to rent a kimono for our teenage daughter. It was a very cool experience starting from trying and choosing a kimono and to wearing it and walking along old Kyoto streets feeling a bit of history.

Cherry blossom in Konchi-in, Kyoto
My daughter gazing at sakura at Konchi-in temple

We were on the way to Nanzen-ji when we saw a small entrance to Konchi-in temple. We didn’t regret a single moment going there. The temple absolutely enchanted us. It was a small island of tranquillity and beauty in full of tourists Kyoto. Nanzen-ji was also full of cherry trees at a full bloom.

Sakura blooming in Nanzen-ji, Kyoto
Sakura blooming in Nanzen-ji

We wanted to walk to Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) through the Philosopher Path but didn’t realise that it was already 4 pm. So by the time we reached the Silver Pavillion, it was unfortunately closed. However, we enjoyed walking on the Philosopher Path along the canal.

Philosopher Walk, Kyoto
Philosopher Walk, Kyoto

The Philosopher Walk was quite busy at this time of the year. But it was really beautiful. I understand, why Nishida Kitaro, the influential 20th-century philosopher liked to meditate walking here.

Philosopher Path
Cherries over canal

It started to rain when we had to go to return the kimono. We took a taxi and spent some time in traffic jams before we reached the rental place. Still, sakura looked beautiful.

Rain in Kyoto
Rainy evening in Kyoto

Sakura of Hiroshima and gentle deer of Miyajima

After busy and grand Kyoto, our path led to Hiroshima and then to Miyajima island, home of the iconic floating torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine.

Spring in Hiroshima (Click on each image to open full screen)

We spend only a few hours in Hiroshima. The city was in full bloom. We walked through Hondori Shotengai, Hiroshima’s shopping street, to the poignant Peace Memorial Park. On the way back we stopped at a very nice okonomiyaki place for lunch and left for Miyajima.

Sakura in bloom on Miyajima
Sakura in bloom on Miyajima

You take a local train from Hiroshima to Miyajimaguchi and then arrive to Miyajima by ferry. When we disembarked it was raining again but not heavily. We checked in the hotel and went for a walk on the promenade meeting much more polite and gentle deer of Miyajima. Sakura blossom was everywhere.

To Osaka by cherry blossom capital of Himeji

Himeji Castle Grounds

The last part of our trip was two days in Hakone and then back to Tokyo to catch the flight to the UK. However, we thought that the train journey from Hiroshima to Hakone would be too long. I also wanted to see Himeji Castle, which is the best place for cherry blossom viewing. So we decided to make a stay in Osaka for a night but on the way there to get off in Himeji to see the caste.

Himeji Castle, sakura blossom
Himeji Castle in bloom.

The castle is only a short walk from the station. I’s a very touristy place as everybody knows that if you want to see the most beautiful cherry blossom scene you should go there. However, we were quite lucky. We arrived to Himeji around 5pm when the castle was already closed. So there were not that many people around.

Himeji Castle, sakura blossom
Himeji Castle in the evening

The cherry blossom around the castle is the main attraction. That’s why we didn’t regret to arrive that late. We walked around, made obligatory selfies and jumped on the train to continue our journey to Osaka.

I still regret that we didn’t stay in Osaka for longer. It’s a great city for food and shopping. Osaka Castle played a very important role during the unification era and was definitely must-see. Alas we only stayed there for a night and caught the beautiful cherry blossom along the canal in the morning on the way to the station.

Osaka, sakura blossom
Cherry blossom in Osaka

We only saw famous Osaka Castle from the distance proudly dominating the skyline. Oh, well. Next time!

Osaka Castle
Proud Osaka Castle

Hakone: it’s just started blossoming

Hakone was the last stop of our trip. After a few hours on Shinkansen and another hour on a bizarre local train, which had to reverse every time it was leaving a station, we arrived to Gora.

Hakone in April (Click on each image to open full screen)

Hakone is located further to the north compared to Hiroshima, Osaka and Kyoto and also up in the mountains. So it had just started blossoming there. Everything felt quite old-fashioned in a good way.

We stayed at a ryokan famous for its garden. We checked in in the evening and it was drizzling. The garden looked eerie like from a fairy-tale or a horror movie.

Eerie garden of Gora-Kansuiro
The eerie garden of Gora-Kansuiro

Cherry blossoming season is one of the two most beautiful times of the year in Japan, the second being the autumn foliage. While it’s the most expensive time to visit Japan and usually very crowded, it’s worth it. The beauty of blooming sakura is almost uncontested.

Blossoming tree
England in bloom

However, when we were back to England, everything was blossoming here as well. And you might argue that English trees are in no way less beautiful than Japanese. English people just don’t make fuss about it 🙂

So open a bottle of sake, get some food, sit down under a magnolia or any other blossoming tree and enjoy a drink and a beautiful spring blossom.



Alex is a London-based sake blogger, podcaster, IWC Sake judge and sake advocate. He is a publisher of the Sugidama Blog website and a host of the Sugidama Podcast. Alex has an International Kikisake-shi (Sake Specialist) qualification from SSI (Sake Service Institute). He sees his mission as expanding the awareness of Japanese sake among as many people as possible and helping the growing community of sake lovers to bring together beautiful Japanese sake and non-Japanese food as a way to build a better understanding between our cultures.

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