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 and are held all over Japan during the spring. That said, do not expect to see the flowers wherever you go, the trees bloom at different times throughout Japan. If you're planning a trip to the country in the spring, here's what you need to know about the hanami tradition.

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. The most popular kind of Japanese cherry tree, sakura, can be found all over the country. These trees are also called somei-yoshino trees or yedoensis in botanical circles.

Hanami literally means "viewing flowers," but it generally indicates cherry blossom viewing. It's said that the origin of hanami dates back more than a 1,000 years to 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 barbecued foods, 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.

Since sake is flowing throughout the day by the time evening approaches, the festivities often turn more into good-natured revelry. This might be a good time to learn how to say "cheers" in Japanese and some drinking etiquette. Elderly Japanese sometimes opt to visit Japanese plum parks to view plum blossoms instead, as these areas are often less busy and rowdy.

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 of 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, the wistful realization that "nothing lasts forever."

When Festivals Take Place

When do cherry blossoms flower in Japan? Cherry blossoms normally begin blooming in January in Okinawa, and cherry blossoms reach their peak in late March to April in the Honshu region. In Hokkaido, cherry blossoms are usually in full bloom in May. However, it's really difficult to predict cherry blossom dates in advance, so planning a trip in advance is tough. In Japan, the JWA (Japan Weather Association), the Weather Map Co., Ltd, and the Weathernews Inc. announce cherry blossom forecasts every spring.

The cherry blossoms usually appear in Tokyo and Kyoto sometime between March and April, depending upon the climate earlier in the year. Golden Week—the busiest time for travel in Japan—often coincides in some places with the blooming cherry blossoms. Golden week falls at the end of April and the first week in May with four consecutive Japanese public holidays.

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. The uncertainty makes it 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 attraction at the cherry blossom festivals, but there are a variety of traditional Japanese performances presented during these festivals. You might want to consider joining a tea ceremony held under the cherry trees; it can be quite the memorable experience.

It's also fun to patronize festival vendors who sell various foods and souvenirs, such as regional crafts and specialty food from the region.

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 U.S. and Europe. One of the biggest festivals in the U.S. is in Washington, D.C. The capital city is host to the National Cherry Blossom Festival. A park in Newark, New Jersey, has Washington, D.C., beat with a larger number of blooming cherry trees than the nation's capital.