The march of the cherry blossoms

Japan - cherry blossoms
Himeji Castle: truly magical

Appreciating the spring is something of an art form in Japan. Chris Carter tracks down the best displays.

Spring may still feel a long way off in Britain after a week of snow and gales, but in Japan, the cherry blossoms are due to bloom. In Tokyo and central parts of the country, the blossoms (sakura in Japanese) are coming early, says Magdalena Osumi in The Japan Times. This year’s flowers are due to arrive in the capital six days ahead of schedule on 20 March.

Predicting when the first blooms (kaika) will appear is admittedly partly down to guesswork. But as spring marches north, so do the blossoms. On the island of Okinawa, which has a subtropical climate, the petals appear as early as January – although the kanzakura and kanhizakura varieties of cherry tree differ from those further north. The cherry blossoms arrive in the northern island of Hokkaido in early May.

The art of hanami

The Japanese have the appreciation of cherry blossoms down to a fine art, says Laura Hampson in the Evening Standard. They even have a word for it: hanami. That’s when families picnic under the trees to enjoy the blooms. The tree-lined slopes of Mount Yoshino have for centuries been one of the most popular sites to admire the flowers. The blossoms here often last until May. Tokyo has a number of hanami nature spots, such as Ueno Park or Shinjuku Gyoen. Time your visit for early April. Around the same time, Himeji Castle, an hour’s train ride from Osaka, is “truly magical”, with its “striking white walls contrasting with the pink hues of the blossoms”.

Potty over petals

The Peninsula Tokyo is going potty over petals. Hundreds of cherry tree boughs will transform the lobby into a hanami haven later this month. Before they are moved outside in April, guests can immerse themselves in all things cherry blossom by nibbling on sakura jelly panna cotta, cherry biscuit choux, and sakura scones, “accented” with salted cherry petals, and washed down with a glass of Deutz Sakura Rosé Champagne as part of a “colourful” Sakura Afternoon Tea. The theme extends into dinner with sakura seabream, followed by an Australian dessert of lamington cake with strawberry and sakura jam. But if you absolutely must venture outside to see the real thing, the Peninsula Boutique & Café will even pack a Hanami Picnic Set for two at ¥7,000 (£48, see Tokyo.peninsula.com – three days’ notice required).

Blossoming friendship

It’s not just Japan that will be enjoying the cherry blossoms early this year – the mild weather is also bringing the flowers to America’s capital sooner than normal. Last Thursday, the National Park Service said it expected “peak bloom” to fall between 17 and 20 March in Washington DC – slightly ahead of the city’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs from 17 March to 15 April.

The festival dates from 1912 when Tokyo gifted 3,000 cherry trees to Washington. “The citizens of Washington DC [have] cherished these cherry trees as a symbol of the friendship between the United States and Japan,” Takehiro Shimada, a minister at the Japanese embassy, tells Allyson Chiu in The Washington Post. This year, 1.5 million visitors are expected to attend the festivities, which include live music, fireworks and a parade.

The festival is an “unrivalled springtime ritual”, says Katie Kelly Bell on Forbes.com. “The masses of pink cherry flowers are so profuse that the sunlight almost takes on a pinkish glow.” The best place to stay for the four-week event is the Rosewood Washington DC hotel (pictured above). There you will find cherry-blossom-inspired cocktails and epicurean picnic lunches, as well as Segway tours of the Tidal Basin reservoir and the cherry-tree “forest” that surrounds it.