Get the lowdown on Japan's cherry blossom season in Tokyo and Kyoto.
The age-old idiom 'in the pink' (in prime health) is how you'll want to begin Japan's energetic cherry blossom season - and it's colour appropriate too. This nationwide celebration is filled with parties to mark the coming of spring, with plenty of beer and sake accompaning gatherings under the pink and purple-toned buds. Two major Japanese cities - Tokyo and Kyoto - are among the best places to witness the trees turn from barren to blooming and enjoy the fun. You'd better time it well though, as once the blossom has arrived, it doesn't last long.
The seasonal parties, known as Hanami (which means flower viewing) span from late March to early May; these range from take-your-grandmother traditional affairs to blow-out all-nighters. There's a special 'blossom forecast' giving regular climate updates that could affect the season and locals spend weeks celebrating the sakura (cherry) and ume (plum) trees. The best bit? Most of the gardens and parks are free, making this a budget-friendly activity that attracts a young student crowd. Make sure you're rosy-cheeked and in good nick for this cheerful festival, and we think you'll have a blooming good time.
Cherry Blossom season in Kyoto
Kyoto is one of Japan's spring hotspots, with plenty of places to spot the blooms. The blossom season in Kyoto ranges from the end of March to mid-April, peaking around April 1st. A popular place for Hanami parties is Maruyama-koen Park; its hundreds of cherry trees and central location make it especially busy with party-goers on weekends - get there early for a good spot.
Other places to see the blossom include Kiyomizu Temple (make sure you catch the spectacular early evening latern light ups) and the popular Philosopher's Path, a canal-side walk dotted with hundreds of cherry trees. If you're planning a visit late in cherry blossom season, around the beginning of May, your best bet is Ninna-ji Temple or Kyoto Botanical Garden, both of which have the best of the late season blooms.
About a two hours drive from Kyoto is Yoshino - Japan's most famous blossom viewing area. The blossoms here are considered the country's most spectacular - well worth a day trip if your visit coincides with peak season.
Cherry Blossom season in Tokyo
Japan's capital welcomes the cherry blossom season from (roughly) March 25th to early/mid April. The blossom peaks around April 2nd (as do hotel prices) and lasts for around a week after that. One of the nicest ways to view the blossom is from the water - head to the Imperial Palace area (Chidori-ga-fuchi) and rent a row boat on the moat which is surrounded by cherry trees.
If you're looking for a late night party then Ueno-koen Park is a good evening option. Hanami parties go on until the early hours here, with revellers sprawled under the trees, enjoying the festival vibe. For a more laid-back Hanami, try Shinjuku Gyoen which is also home to a Japanese garden, tropical plants and a fish pond.
How to have a great Hanami
Given the popularity of cherry blossom season it's good to be prepared for the crowds. Get there early if you want to secure a good spot under the cherry trees. Taking a picnic is a good idea and many shops sell bento boxes for the occasion. Drinks and food stalls can be quite pricey so plan what to take and what to buy in advance. It's also good to remember that although toilets are available the queues can be annoyingly long. If you want to ensure you leave 'in the pink' and rosy cheeked, make sure you take some warm clothes; March especially can be very cold. Finally, don't forget your camera; the pink and purple blossoms are seriously snap-worthy.