Saturday, 27 March 2010

Cherry blossom-time in Japan

The Japanese love their fairy-tale cherry-blossoms, sakura, and admiring the fluffy pink-and-white clouds of cherry-blossoms is called hanami - the hanami tradition dates back many hundreds of years although it used to be just for the Imperial court - nowadays everyone enjoys it. It’s a popular tradition in springtime to have a little party in the park under the cherry trees with a picnic and a glass of sake or beer, or to stroll along the romantic riverbanks or streets where the trees are illuminated by paper lanterns at night. The most common blossoms are yedoensis, or somei yoshino, white with a tinge of pink, although there are about 200 varieties native to Japan, and the trees do not bear fruit. The sakura themselves last only a couple of weeks before the petals wither and fall, but to the Japanese, their great beauty, abundance and fragility are representative of life itself, and, above all, its shortness.

Typically the cherry-blossom season starts in the southern regions such as Okinawa in January, moving northwards over the following weeks to reach Kyoto and Tokyo in late March, and it lasts for barely a couple of weeks in any one place. The cherry-blossom season is a little early this year, 2010, as the weather has been quite mild recently, so from around March 21st to April 6th the sakura buds will be blooming in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Hanami in Tokyo

One of the favourite spots for hanami parties in Tokyo is Ueno Park which has over 1000 cherry trees and is free to enter, and which is also hosting the 6th annual Tokyo Opera Nomori Festival between March 16th and April 10th 2010. There are around 40 classical concerts scheduled around the neighbourhood, some of them free, to celebrate the arrival of spring. Nearby you can also find the National Museum, the National Science Museum, the Museum of Western Art and the Metropolitan Modern Art Gallery, so it is easy to combine an enjoyable Japanese tradition with world-class culture!

Shinjuku Gyoen is not far from Shinjuku Station, and it also has 1000 trees but of many different varieties – there is an entrance fee payable here of 200 yen.

Hanami in Kyoto

Kyoto’s best spot is Maruyam Park next door to Yasaka Shrine, it’s centrepiece is a great pink weeping cherry tree that is lit up at night, and entrance to the park is free. Heian Shrine has many weeping cherry trees in its garden, but you have to pay 600 yen to go in. You may like to visit the gardens during one of four evening classical concerts this year to celebrate the blossom festival, 9th -12th April, tickets cost 2000 yen. Alongside Heian Shrine is the Okazaki Canal which is lined with sakura, and you can take a boat trip of around 25 minutes for 1000 yen to get really nice views. Kamogawa River is also a favourite viewing spot especially where it is crossed by Kitaoji Street

Ninnaji Temple has late-flowering sakura, and Hirano Shrine has hosted its own cherry blossom festival for a thousand years – it’s on the 10th April, and the shrine is only a 10-minute walk from the Golden Pavilion. Kiyomizu and Kodaiji Temples are specially illuminated at dusk during the blossom time, entrance fees are around 500 yen.

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