My adolescence consisted of dreaming about faraway places, most notably Japan during its beautiful, fleeting sakura blossom season, and Venice, Italy. This spring, over a decade after I first researched flights to Japan when I was twelve years old, I finally made it to Tokyo during the elusive cherry blossom full bloom. It was everything I hoped it’d be and more. What I didn’t expect was how much pure happiness I’d witness in others, too, accompanying full-on celebrations in the streets.
I expected the colorful sea of blossoms lining every corner, park, and street – which was too perfect to describe – but the unadulterated joy and child-like energy in the air was perhaps even more beautiful. Everyone celebrates with “hanami” in parks around Tokyo. Essentially, everyone gets together in large groups and picnics for hours, with plenty of food, drink, singing, and laughter. These picnics begin early and go until late. It is an annual celebration to welcome the coming of spring and appreciate the transient beauty of nature.
I’ve been to a number of large, happy celebrations throughout my travels, but they never get old—people celebrating our beautiful Earth as well as companionship with one another is perhaps the best thing of all. Honestly, you could walk almost anywhere in Tokyo and spot gorgeous blossoms during the brief two-week period (usually late March to early April) – but I have a few recommendations of my favorites.
Tokyo Metropolitan Area is the world’s largest at 40 million, and almost 20 million use the trains daily. Being from Detroit Metro suburbs, I was elated to see such amazing, timely public transit. Any of these destinations are easily (and cheaply!) accessible.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens
The Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens were the first major blossoms I visited, and I was blown away by their beauty and everyone’s happiness. It was mid-day when I arrived, and there was laughter everywhere. This is the only place on my list that costs money, but it is only ¥200 ($2 USD) / person. They’re open 9am-4:30pm (last entrance 4pm) and there may be a bit of a wait to get in – but fear not, there are three entrances. The Shinjuku gate is closest to the train station, but if the line looks long, keep going. The Okido and Sendagaya gates are not far (10 minutes), and we only waited 5 minutes mid-day (12pm) at the height of full bloom. The park is HUGE; 20,000 trees and 1,500 of them blooming cherry trees (thanks Wikipedia!). Plenty of space for hanami and amazing photo opportunities everywhere you look, although you should expect to navigate crowds!
I actually went here for a sunrise photoshoot and was yet again blown away, but for a different reason – it was a contented happiness, a peaceful sort of routine with shop owners setting up for the day. People were beginning to unfold their picnic tarps for the day’s hanami, situating make-shift tables for their food and drink, waiting on their friends. Other photographers were out, but it’s not crowded at all yet – everyone has their space. There are also many shrines and temples throughout the park, contributing to its serene feel. Ueno is one of the biggest, most popular destinations later in the day, but I highly recommend you go as early as you can – it’s worth it. I went around 6:30am.
I actually came to this area specifically to see the outside of the Ghibli Museum (sadly wasn’t able to get tickets – make sure you plan for at least 1 month beforehand, if not 2-3!), but again was enthralled by everyone’s happy hanami in the late afternoon! You can rent little boats here as well to paddle around the lake, and there is plenty of space for picnic blankets. There is also a temple within the park, and walking trails throughout.
Chidorigafuchi Park & Chiyoda
A wonderful bonus of sakura season is that it falls during my birthday, March 30th! I was fortunate enough to spend part of my day in a canoe rowing through an actual sea of fallen cherry blossom petals. You can rent for 30 or 60 minutes – do the latter, trust me. Magical doesn’t begin to describe it. The entire area is gorgeous: the Imperial Palace and Edo Castle Ruins are definitely worth a visit, although I saw these areas just prior to the bloom. Yasukuni Shrine is just north of it; I’ll never forget watching blossom petals “rain” down gently here. As a bonus, an amazing (EARLY) dinner recommendation is Midori Sushi Ginza, just south of here – the best sushi I’ve ever had, at the most reasonable prices (and I am a sushi fanatic). I say “EARLY” dinner as if you go after 5pm, expect to wait anywhere up to 3 hours (they do not take reservations)… although it’s worth it! They open at 11am, and I recommend going at either 10:30am and queuing or between 2-4pm.
Nakameguro & Meguro River
I was also extremely fortunate to housesit a lovely kitty named Godzilla right next to the famous Meguro River, lined with blossoms and lit-up at night with hanging lanterns along the canal. Everyone is cheerfully sipping strawberry champagne, cocktails, and eating tons of yummy street food – it’s a wonderful sight. Just be patient, as it’s one of the most packed places I’ve experienced, especially near the Nakameguro train station. But still, incredibly worth it. A dinner recommendation here would be “Nakame no Teppen” for delicious Izakaya – reservation highly recommended 2-3 days in advance!
Like I said, though – these are just a few of the many, many places around Tokyo you can go to appreciate the beauty of sakura blossoms.