Where to see cherry blossoms in Tokyo – sans the crowds
As Tokyo warms up, visitors flock to catch a glimpse of the ephemeral cherry blossoms in bloom. Here are the best places to enjoy this magical parade of pink.
- March 2019
I first arrived in Tokyo nine years ago. It was the beginning of February: one of the coldest months of the year. The skies were grey, the trees were bare and the wind was biting. Coming from Sydney’s high summer and carefree days at the beach, it was a rude shock.
But as March brought more sunlight and warmth, the whole city slowly woke from hibernation. Store windows came alive with vibrant spring fashions and bakeries started piling up sugary pink wagashi sweets and bean paste buns topped with salted cherry blossoms. By the end of the month, the whole city was festooned in fresh pink and bright green. Then, the magic happened: the little buds dotting the bare branches of the cherry blossom trees burst into bloom simultaneously, coordinated by some secret signal.
Suddenly I understood the local mania of tracking the cherry blossom “front” on the morning weather report – a blushing army, advancing north each day. After the bitterness of winter, the cherry blossoms herald warmth and hope. In Japan, the brief cherry blossom season means so much more than flowers. It’s also graduation season and the time when people start at new schools and jobs. As the petals fall, many people are leaving their old lives and starting something new. The feeling is bittersweet because, as much as we look forward to new growth, it hurts to say goodbye. Dozens of pop songs try to encapsulate that mixture of nostalgia and fleeting beauty.
The cherry blossoms are only in full bloom for a scant week, at the mercy of the capricious spring weather. A crisp, sunny day and a canopy of pink demands celebration and Tokyoites, usually reserved and work-focused, join in with gusto, office workers kicking off their shoes to lounge under the trees with a well-earned drink or three. Tourists also visit from all over the world to experience the magic of spring under the rosy clouds. And therein lies the problem: how do you enjoy the beauty when there are several million other people trying to make the most of the short season?
Of course, you can rent a rowboat and cruise the pink-petalled moat around the Imperial Palace at Chidorigafuchi Park, pay AUD $2.50 to see the flowers with a backdrop of skyscrapers in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden or join the raucous party that spreads out under the 1000 or so trees at Ueno Park.
But there are plenty of less crowded places, where you can commune with nature and get that perfect shot under the cherry blossoms, without getting clobbered with a selfie stick.
One of the most photogenic spots is Nakameguro, south of Shibuya. With trees lining both sides of the Meguro River, you can stroll beneath the blossoms during the day in relative peace, armed with a coffee from one of the cool cafés nearby such as Sidewalk Stand. As the sun sets, pink lanterns start to glow, creating magical reflections on the water, and street stalls spring to life, selling everything from chicken skewers to pink champagne. Head to Yakitori Akira to eat on the terrace overlooking the river, under a particularly fluffy cherry blossom tree.
If you’re not easily spooked, you’ll find plenty of picnic spots among the graves at Yanaka Cemetery in Tokyo’s north, next to Nippori Station. The atmosphere is far from morbid, as locals join the area’s famous stray cats and the ghosts of some very important people – including Japan’s last shogun – to drink sake under the flowers along Sakura-dori (Cherry Blossom Street), which starts in front of Tennoji Temple. Finish off a lazy afternoon under the petals with a stroll down Yanaka Ginza, an old shopping street dotted with traditional stores and cafés, many featuring cat motifs.
One of Tokyo’s most historic cherry blossom spots is surprisingly off the tourist radar. Since the Edo period (1615-1868), when the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune established it as one of Tokyo’s first public parks, Asukayama Park has hosted revellers under its spreading branches. The park once had a small castle and wooden tea house, which have both since disappeared, but this has perhaps saved it from becoming too popular. Now, it’s a laid-back place to enjoy the blossoms, with plenty of room to spread out and admire the trees. The park is an easy walk up the hill from Oji Station but you can also take a free, dinky little monorail to the top. Locals stop to pick up picnic supplies at Ogiya, a small shop next to the station that has been making tamago yaki (rolled omelette) since 1648.
While the cherry blossoms are most celebrated at the peak of their brief bloom, there’s something magical about the days that follow too, as the wind scoops up the petals in great blushing ribbons across the sky. They swirl around your feet like confetti and paint Tokyo’s rivers and canals a delicate pink, before the trees burst into vibrant green. Like the aftermath of a great party, it’s a reminder of the good times, without the hangover.