Virtual cherry blossom – how to indulge in “hanami” from your sofa

Chris Carter enjoys the cherry-blossom blooms of a Japanese spring from his locked-down London home.

Every year in the spring millions of people across Japan stop to indulge in a spot of hanami – gazing at the cherry blossoms flowering on the trees and pondering their transient beauty. The pandemic spoilt the party last year and this year looks to be a repeat performance. But if you can’t get to Japan, the next best thing may be to bring Japan to you. That’s why the National Trust, together with Historic England and local councils, and with funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery, is planning to go on a cherry-tree-planting spree, spreading the pink blossoms to “some of the greyest urban areas”. 

Starting with the creation of a London Blossom Garden at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London, the plan is to spread a riot of colour to Nottingham, Newcastle, Plymouth and beyond. As an editorial in The Times puts it, “such an emphasis on appreciating the serenity offered by simple pleasures is one of the many traditions to admire in Japanese culture”. The trouble is, it will take around five years to bring the plan to fruition.

A virtual guide to Japan

Happily, all is not lost for this year. Japan Rail Pass has put together a handy “virtual” guide to enjoying Japan “while stuck at home” at jrailpass.com/blog/japan-virtual-travel. It lists links to online videos and live cams covering such tourist hotspots as Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya Crossing, made famous by its appearance in countless films. There is also a link to the Japanese Weather News website and its 360-degree virtual tours. If, like me, your Japanese isn’t quite up to scratch, simply run the page through Google Translate to render it into English, and you will be free to explore on YouTube blooms from places such as Ueno Park in Tokyo and Osaka Castle. These videos can also be watched in 360˚ virtual reality if you have a VR headset. 

Of course, Japan is a big, or rather long, country, so the cherry blossoms, or sakura, don’t all arrive at the same time. On Japan’s four main islands, the sakura arrives in the south around now, before travelling north to where the climate is cooler. Then it takes around a week for the blossoms to reach mankai (full bloom), lasting just a few, splendid days.

Britain won’t be the first country to import this ancient Japanese custom. Washington DC and Vancouver are also well known for putting on spectacular sakura shows. This year, Washington’s National Cherry Blossom Festival is launching a “Bloom Cam” so people can engage in hanami from home. The blossoms are expected there in early April. The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival will be working with Peacemaker Filmworks to “create a visual experience unlike anything seen before” towards the end of the month. Keep an eye out for it here.

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