All About Japan's Cherry Blossom Festivals

What tourists should know about the tradition

Japan cherry blossom festival
••• Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Japan is known around the world for its cherry blossom festivals. Known as hanami in Japanese, cherry blossom festivals are an important custom. In fact, they are held all over Japan during the springtime. If you're planning a trip to the country then, here's a rundown of the basic facts about hanami.

The Meaning of Hanami

Hanami is the ancient tradition of going to enjoy the blooming of cherry blossoms (sakura) and sometimes plum blossoms (ume) in parks and throughout the countryside in Japan.

Hanami literally means "viewing flowers," but it generally indicates cherry blossom viewing. It's said that the origin of hanami dates back to more than a thousand years ago when aristocrats enjoyed looking at beautiful cherry blossoms and wrote poems inspired by them.

How Cherry Blossoms Are Celebrated in Japan

Unlike the aristocrats of yesteryear, today people in Japan make fun a key component of cherry blossom viewing. They drink and eat, making the tradition of blossom-viewing more like a picnic under the trees. People bring home-cooked meals, make barbecue, or buy take-out food to mark the occasion. As thousands of people flock to parks, securing the nicer places for picnics and parties in public spaces actually becomes competitive. Many people will go stake out a spot early in the morning or even a day in advance.If you do not like the crowd at one blossom viewing, you can easily go to a neighborhood park, garden, or other quiet place to view the blossoms instead.

As evening approaches, festivities often turn more into good-natured revelry as sake flows throughout the day. Elderly Japanese sometimes opt to visit Japanese plum parks to view ume instead, as these areas are often less busy and rowdy. Learn how to say cheers in Japanese and some drinking etiquette in case you are invited.

The Symbolic Significance of Cherry Blossoms

Because cherry blossoms are beautiful and fleeting -- the blooms often last no more than two weeks -- they have become symbolic for the impermanence of beauty. Cherry blossoms are often featured in works or art and even tattoos to depict the Japanese concept of mono no aware, or the wistful realization that nothing lasts forever.

Japan's Most Popular Blossom

The most popular kind of Japanese cherry (sakura) tree can be found all over the country. It is called somei-yoshino (Yedoensis). However, that doesn't mean you can expect to see the flowers wherever you go during springtime. That's because sakura trees bloom at different times throughout Japan, and unfortunately the blooming period of somei-yoshino is usually short.

When Festivals Take Place

When do cherry blossoms flower in Japan? Cherry blossoms (Higan zakura) normally begin blooming in January in Okinawa, and somei yoshino cherry blossoms reach their peak in late March to April in Honshu region. In Hokkaido, cherry blossoms are usually in full blooms in May. However, it's really difficult to predict cherry blossom opening dates in advance, and planning a trip at the right time is tough.

In Japan, the JWA (Japan Weather Association), the Weather Map Co., Ltd, and the Weathernews Inc. mainly announce cherry blossom forecasts every spring.

The cherry blossoms usually appear in Tokyo and Kyoto sometime between March and April, depending upon the climate that year. Golden Week -- the busiest time for travel in Japan -- often coincides in some places with the blooming cherry blossoms.

Cherry blossom festivals take place in different regions of the country. Most of them are held from March to May, though other regions organize festivals during January, February, and June, depending on their location. Festival dates are usually determined with reference to cherry blossom forecasts and vary from year to year. That might make it a bit more difficult to schedule your trip around a specific festival.

But if there's one celebration you're particularly eager to attend, you can research the dates of when the festival took place over the past five to 10 years. Take the average of those dates and plan your trip accordingly. 

The Main Attraction

Gorgeous flowers are the main attractions of cherry blossom festivals, but the variety of traditional Japanese performing arts presented during these festivals also draw in the crowds. Joining tea ceremonies held under cherry trees can be a memorable experience as well.

It's also fun to patronize festival vendors who sell various foods and souvenirs, such as regional crafts and speciality food in the region. It's notable that many cherry blossom festivals put on light-up events in the evening.

Cherry Blossoms Elsewhere in the World

Arguably no country celebrates the cherry blossom with the excitement of Japan, but the country is hardly the only place on earth with a large assortment of these flowers. Hanami is also celebrated to a lesser extent in China, Korea, and Taiwan. Smaller celebrations can be enjoyed throughout the US and Europe. If you want to learn more about the cherry blossom before you visit Japan, try visiting one of the many places in the United States known for these flowers, such as Washington, D.C. The capital city is host to the National Cherry Blossom Festival.