JETSETTER

Sakura And Where To Find Them

Everyone knows the usual places to enjoy cherry blossoms, but where do the locals go?

April 2019

There are more than a hundred varieties of sakura trees but only one type of nuisance tourist – the kind whose photo-taking either blocks everyone, involves entering prohibited areas, is accompanied with shouting, or all of the above. 

It’s cherry blossom season and both the locals and tourists alike are going mad over the fragile beauty of sakura. 

The delicate flowers of the Japanese cherry tree appear in shades from white and pale pink, to dark pink and even yellow. 

The most popular varieties are the lighter coloured Somei Yoshino and Yamazakura. If you’re lucky to see them contrasted with a darker pink sakura like the Kawazuzakura, this juxtaposition can be more exhilarating to view than a double rainbow. 

But it isn’t just the stunning beauty of the cherry blossom that entices the Japanese. 

This fragile flower represents the transience of life because its blooms are spectacularly ephemeral. 

The span from kaika (first blossom) to mankai (full blossom) is just two short weeks. Plus when that happens these days is as easy to predict as next week’s Toto draw.  

That and probably the opportunity to have a hanami or flower viewing party with some food and many drinks is why cherry blossom season is so cherished. 

Here are some popular venues to view them, and a less well-known spot. 

Chidorigafuchi Park
More path than park, Chidorigafuchi is nevertheless regal for hugging the western moat of the Imperial Palace.

You may think the Chidorigafuchi name translates to “a thousand birds’ moat”, but it really means “plover’s pool” for its shape. 

The sprays of somei yoshino over the water are tranquil and the ambience in the evening, with office workers picnicking under a cherry tree, so inviting you wish you could join them. 

You could take the subway there. But if you want a languid walk up from Hibiya Park opposite the Imperial Hotel, watch out for human missiles. These are the joggers and occasional cyclist hurtling towards you in a never-ending onslaught. 

After a while, you realise why; they’re all going downhill while you’re walking uphill, which makes you either not as clever or not as lazy. 

The walk back to Hibiya Park should be slightly saner. 

Nearest metro station: Hanzomon

Yasukuni shrine 
You may not agree with whose shrines are housed at Yasukuni but if you can ignore the wooden buildings for the trees, there is one compelling reason to visit – the arboreal equivalent of Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog. 

Because this is where the so-called sample tree for phenological observation by the Meteorological Agency is found. 

It is Tokyo’s representative cherry tree, which declares the official start of the sakura season in the city when more than five of its blossoms open.

Make no mistake, this is one powerful Somei Yoshino which can make or break your plans for the perfect sakura holiday. 

Nearest metro station: Kudanshita

Kitanomaru
Cross the street from Yasukuni to the Kitanomaru National Garden and hop into a little row boat. The water may be cold but the lush sakura hanging over the pond is inviting. 

There will be a queue to rent a boat but this has to be the only way to enjoy the blooms up close and very privately. 

Nearest metro station: Kudanshita

Shinjuku Gyoen
Because the alternative is to jostle with tourists who love to hog low lying cherry blossoms. Even if it costs ¥500. 

That’s the entrance fee for Shinjuku Gyoen. Yet thousands will descend on the massive gardens to loll under the canopy of sakura and hanami all day.  

No alcohol is allowed, so maybe that’s why you’ll see many families sprawled on a tarp. 

But because the grounds are so huge, it is possible to find a quiet bench to gaze at a solitary tree all by yourself.  

If you’re lucky, a strong wind or a hungry bird will shake the cherry blossoms. Catch three falling petals in a row as they float to the ground and you may discover a Shinjuku surprise. Or not. 

Nearest metro station: Shinjuku-gyoenmae

Meguro River

If you thought Shinjuku Gyoen was full of pesky tourists, you will get an agoraphobic attack at Meguro.  

There are so many people that there are wardens for crowd control. Some also hold signs to guide you on a so-called Sakura Route, which is basically walking around a short stretch of the river with cafes and food stalls on both sides. 

It’s a human crush but the atmosphere is wonderful, especially at night when the lantern-lit river banks illuminate the tree arch over the water. 

To beat the hordes, go south and amble along the Meguro River Cherry Blossom Promenade for a more relaxing time. The river widens here, so there’s no verdant archway like the one next to the metro station. But it is a longer and more pleasant walk. 

Nearest metro station: Naka-meguro

Ark Hills

The Ark Hills development in Akasaka is a huge office complex but behind it in the quiet streets with their luxury apartments and foreign embassies, 150 cherry trees line the roads over a total of one kilometre.

At night, it is sensationally lit into a sakura wonderland. But don’t go too late because they cut the lights at about 10pm. 

But even unlit, the cherry blossom “tunnel’’ or the tree arch at Izumi-dori is so stunning someone is bound to be standing in the middle of the empty road taking a selfie. 

Best of all, few tourists know about this area. So all you get are office workers and dating couples. It’s wonderfully civilised, although there may be the occasional Japanese ah beng who ignores the nearby guards and drives his jalopy right up to the bridge opposite the US embassy. 

Nearest metro station: Roppongi-itchome

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