Sakura, Sakura: The Cherry Blossoms of Tokyo
For a short period at the beginning of April, the word “sakura” becomes a prominent noun in approximately 75% of the sentences spoken in Tokyo. Because when the city’s cherry trees bloom, there’s no talking about anything else. You’re either chatting about the blossoms, planning your picnic in the park, sitting in a rowboat under the trees, or strolling along a path while the petals flutter to the ground like the sweetest, most fragrant snowfall imaginable.
We celebrated the season by visiting a variety of Tokyo’s most popular viewing spots. Parks, paths, cemeteries… anywhere a cherry tree grew, we found people assembled around it. During these few, fleeting days, Tokyo becomes a more magical place.
Our first sakura excursion was to the southwestern neighborhood of Meguro, where a foul-smelling river winds its way toward Tokyo Bay. Cherry trees line the banks of the Meguro, and a couple well-placed bridges provide perfect views of the blossoms. Here, we got our first taste of the massive crowds which turn out for the sakuras. We were shocked, and a little annoyed by the hundreds of photographers jostling along the bridges for a prime position. Little did we know that Meguro would be by far the least congested spot on our itinerary. [26 More Photos | Location]
One of the biggest cemeteries in Tokyo, Aoyama is famous for its cherry blossoms. Sakuras are a harbinger of winter’s end and a return to life, and their blossoming above a field of graves lends their celebrated beauty a certain symbolic weight. [34 More Photos | Location]
After Ueno Park, Chidorigafuchi is the most popular spot in Tokyo for viewing the cherry blossoms. This winding channel was part of the moat which once protected the Imperial Palace, and today sports an impenetrable wall of cherry trees. A walk along the waterside and over the pedestrian bridge into Kitanomaru Park has become an essential Tokyo experience. The crowds are wearying, but should you make it to Kitanomaru, you can reward yourself with an extended nap under the blossoms. At least, that’s what we did. [57 More Photos | Location]
We had thought that Kichijōji’s Inokashira Park, fifteen kilometers to the west of the city center, would have less daunting crowds. Hah! We visited the park on Saturday, when the hamami (flower viewing parties) were truly getting underway, and every inch of ground was occupied by people enjoying elaborate, sake-soaked picnics.
We hadn’t been invited to a party, and I was jealous of the intoxicated fun everyone was having, but we joined in as well as possible by grabbing beer and bento-boxes from a nearby restaurant, and renting a row-boat. Traffic on the pond was crazy, and smashing into other boats was both unavoidable and hilarious, but we eventually steered ourselves to a prime location underneath a gorgeous cherry tree, where we enjoyed our meals with a view of the pond through a veil of falling petals. [32 More Photos | Location]
After spending the day in Inokashira, we returned to the city and went to the Sumida River Park near Asakusa for the evening. The trees along the bank were illuminated and the river itself was glowing with the traffic of colorful pleasure boats. There was a younger crowd here, playing music on guitars and getting progressively rowdier as the evening wore on. It looked like most of the revelers planned on sleeping outside; in fact, but by the time we left, many were already passed out. [11 More Photos | Location]
The atmosphere on Saturday had been one of drunken revelry, so we weren’t surprised to find that Sunday in Ueno Park was decidedly hungover. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, but this didn’t stop people from congregating in the thousands. The cherry blossoms which had arrived a mere week ago were starting to collect on the ground, and the party was winding down.
That was fine by us; we were suffering from sakura-overdose, and had visited Ueno more out of a sense of duty than pleasure. Despite our flagging energy, we didn’t want to miss the city’s most famous cherry blossom spot, and say farewell to a cultural phenomenon, the likes of which we wouldn’t soon be forgetting. [28 More Photos | Location]