I don’t recall ever experiencing a cherry blossom season that came as quickly—and ended just as quickly—as this year’s. Since we had an extremely cold winter, I couldn’t believe it when the Japan Meteorological Corp announced in February that the first buds were forecast to open on March 17th. Usually cold weather prolongs their dormancy, and I had expected a late-March start date.
But when March 1st rolled around, it was like someone turned the switch to spring. In the first few weeks of the month, we had many days of high temps hovering around 20ºC (though the lows were still around 4-5ºC). And true to the forecast, the first buds of Tokyo’s representative tree at Yasukuni Shrine were declared open on the 17th—nine days earlier than the average year.
Exactly one week after the buds first opened, full bloom was announced… though in my (very professional) opinion, the majority of flowers were only around 70% bloomed. Most people seem to agree the actual full bloom—where the trees are at their fullest and puffiest—was around the 27th.
We had just two full days of peak bloom before the petals started blowing away. Luckily for me, I was on spring holidays for the main blooming period so I was able to dedicate every day to making the most of the sakura’s short life. I discovered some amazing places, revisited some of my old favourites, and joined a few hanami picnics. And the cherry on top: we were blessed with warm, sunny weather almost all week.
Day 1: March 26th
I started my sakura-hunting week off at Meiji Jingu Gaien. It was my first time here and I decided to go on a whim after it popped up on Google Maps as a sakura hot spot (a special feature in spring). The area is famous for its ginkgo avenues which turn bright yellow in November, but I never realised there were cherry trees here, too. There were several somei yoshino trees (the main sakura), but also the weeping sakura, apricot blossoms and magnolias were very pretty.
A few stops away on the Oedo Line, Tokyo Tower was my next destination. Particularly, I was after a great yozakura (night sakura) place. I figured if I walked around the area I’d find somewhere eventually. Well, I didn’t have to go far. Right around the corner from Akabanebashi Station was a whole street lined with cherry trees. I used a parking meter as a tripod and got a couple of nice shots! Further up the road, there were plenty more trees at the base of the tower. A taxi driver I spoke to a few days later said this area was his favourite in Tokyo!
Day 2: March 27th
I decided to stay local and explore my neighbourhood, Setagaya, by bicycle. First up was Shoin Jinja, a small shrine at the end of a shopping street. Next, was a famous temple called Gotokuji, known for its maneki neko (lucky cat) statues. The cherry blossoms were looking full and very beautiful. The whole of Setagaya Ward is packed with so many sakura trees that you really don’t have to go to any specific places to enjoy the flowers. Just put on your walking shoes, or jump on a bike, and follow the trail of petals!
Day 3: March 28th
There were two places I had reserved for the peak bloom. One was the canal behind Toho Studios. I went here three years ago and it immediately became my favourite sakura spot. I don’t remember why but I couldn’t make it last year or the year before. So this year I was itching to get back there. As soon as I laid eyes on the first trees at the canal, I thought, yep it’s still my favourite place! The cascading trees, the little waterfalls, the reflection on the surface of the water. It looked like a painting. Interestingly, there were only about a dozen other people, so it seems like word hasn’t got out about this amazing place.
The other place I wanted to see during full bloom was a canal near Shukugawara (technically this place is in Kanagawa Prefecture, but it’s near the border of Tokyo and only a 15-minute train trip from the previous place). Think: a bubbling stream running past grassy banks and colourful flowers. Overhead, a ceiling of soft, white cherry blossoms creating a heavenly tunnel. And every so often, hundreds of tiny petals sprinkling down with the breeze. This place was 10/10.
I needed to be in Omotesando at 5pm for an appointment, which ended up being cancelled last minute. So without anything else planned, I walked up the road to Aoyama Cemetery. Many people rave about this as one of Tokyo’s best cherry blossom spots, but I’ve never been keen on the idea of hanging out in a graveyard. It turned out to be a very beautiful place and especially gorgeous in the late afternoon light, but I still feel a bit weird about it.
Day 4: March 29th
Thursday was a hanami picnic-filled day. I started by visiting the Imperial Palace (former Edo Castle) which opens its gates to the public only a few days a year. In spring, we can walk down Inui Street and see many varieties of cherry. I was expecting long lines to get in, but surprisingly we only had to wait 10 minutes. The street itself is not long, but it felt like a privilege to be there and to catch a glimpse of some of the palace’s buildings.
For lunch, I joined a group of colleagues at Hinokicho Park behind Tokyo MidTown, a luxury shopping complex. I absolutely love hanami picnics because everyone always seems so happy and relaxed. Kids run around, couples lay around, friends kanpai together. The trees in the park were already past peak, showing signs of the end of the season.
In the evening, I joined another group of friends at Yoyogi Park. As expected, the atmosphere here was super fun and lively. People come here to drink and have a good time; some people even bring their own stereos to blast music. There’s nothing like a party under a ceiling of white flowers!
Day 5: March 30th
One of the things I was most looking forward to this week was going to Chidorigafuchi, one section of the Imperial Palace moat. I met a few girlfriends early in the morning and we were among the first out in the row boats. I always feel so uncoordinated when rowing a canoe but I’m not one to back down from a challenge! It was so much fun, and we could have stayed out much later than the 1 hour time slot. Many trees were already noticeably flower-less… not even two weeks since the first buds opened, can you believe?
In the afternoon, rather than stick around Tokyo city, we decided to head west to Showa Kinen Park. The flowers bloom a day or two later here, and were very much still at their peak! The ‘cherry blossom garden’ was insanely beautiful. It was my first time to be here during full bloom, and I was blown away. The green grass, the white blossoms, the blue sky. It was the perfect combination, and a great end to Tokyo’s 2018 sakura season.