A brief history of Hanami
Hanami, 花見 in Japanese, literally means, “flower viewing.” Throughout Japan, people gather in mass to look at the trees and picnic (or even camp!) under the trees. The practice dates back centuries, with people first admiring plum blossoms instead (which bloom earlier than sakura). This is called umemi, 梅見 in Japanese, “plum viewing”. But the first time hanami specifically referred to cherry blossom tree was in the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji.
The Tale of Genji
The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century. Around this time, the Imperial Court began holding flower-viewing parties complete with feasting and drinking sake under the trees. Eventually, the lowly commoners were practicing hanami as well and a national pastime was born! And since Japan doesn’t have laws against having open containers of alcohol in public, there is nothing stopping you from staying true to the traditional meaning of hanami 🌸 🍶 🌸
Today, locations with a large number of trees often hold cherry blossom tree festivals, complete with souvenir booths, food stalls, and hordes of tourists.
Myths about Cherry Blossom Tress Season in Japan
For the uninitiated, there are a couple of basic “facts” often disseminated about cherry blossom tree in Japan:
- It begins in mid-March.
- But it’s uncertain exactly when it will start (making planning difficult, if not futile).
- It lasts for one week, two at most.
- And then it’s gone. The trees disappear like ghosts in the wind.
All of these things are lies. Okay, “lies” is a bit harsh, but I can at least say that none of these things is the complete truth.
Luckily, the truth paints a much nicer picture for people who are trying to plan a trip to Japan to participate in hanami!
5 things you need to know about Sakura in Japan
Japan is a much bigger country than you might expect. Its four main islands, Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku are together 150% the size of the United Kingdom.
I travelled through ten locations on the main island of Honshu, ranging from Miyajima Island in the south to Hirosaki in the north. The drive between these places takes about eighteen hours.
From coasts in the south to the Japanese alps — there were cherry blossoms in every single place! Even in places where the peak bloom was more than a month past. How is that even possible? I thought they bloom for a mere two weeks??
Here’s what I learned about cherry blossom tree in Japan.
Every tree is different
The phrase “late-bloomer” exists for a reason. Cherry blossom trees aren’t connected to each other by some underground communication network. Yes, most trees of a specific variety in a specific place do bloom together. However, it doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily miss out on cherry trees in bloom because you’re too late. There are many factors that contribute to when a specific cherry tree blooms.
Left: Cherry trees in full bloom at Tenryu-Ji in Kyoto, 21. April (19 days after “full bloom” for the city). It’s most likely so late because it’s one of the common late-blooming varieties.
Sakura bloom depending on latitude
Sakura bloom over a broad period of time, largely based on latitude. For example, blooming begin in Okinawa as early as January. The “cherry blossom tree front” slowly moves north over the course of several months, with Sakura blooming in Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, throughout May. This front indicates the opening of the first blossoms, and not the arrival of full bloom (which is often about a week or two after).
This means that any trip between February and May has the possibility of viewing cherry blossoms. That’s encouraging!
Sakura bloom depending on elevation
Latitude is not the only factor in creating the Spring conditions needed for cherry trees to bloom. A more southernly city can have a later cherry blossom tree season if it has higher elevation (which keeps temperatures cooler).
For example, Tokyo was set to begin blooming around the 21st of March. Yet, at the beginning of May, we saw cherry blossom tree in full bloom in Kawaguchi-ko, a town southwest of Tokyo near Mt. Fuji. These trees were largely in full sun, and included varieties that you’d expect to bloom at the beginning of the season.
Sakura bloom depending on immediate surroundings
A lot of the cherry trees in bloom that I saw in the south of Honshu were in surroundings that either delayed or protected their blossoms. For example, these trees were located in the shade, or shielded from damaging Spring rains by other trees or buildings.
The flowers on the right bank have started to fall before those on the left. My guess would be that the right bank is exposed to more powerful sunlight.
Cherry Blossom Tree depending on variety
Different types of cherry trees bloom at different times. This is a large reason why you can catch cherry trees throughout Japan at any point during Spring after the first bloom.
Most of the pictures you’ll see of masses of blooming cherry trees are the Somei Yoshino variety, which bloom relatively early.
The oldest cherry blossom tree in Hirosaki Castle Park, a Somei Yoshino at 120 years old.
Enjoying this post? Make sure to continue reading this amazing blog about Cherry Blossom Tree and the amazing trivia about it!
How to distinguish a cherry blossom tree!
There are several factors that can help distinguish the type of cherry blossom tree you’re viewing:
Look for: Number of petals
Typically characterized as having batches of 5, about 20, and about 100. The common Somei Yoshino has five petals. Blossoms with more than five petals are called yaezakura.
Blossoms with fewer petals typically open earlier, whereas those with more than five petals open later by about two to four weeks. This partly explains why many of the cherry blossom trees we saw in the middle to south of Japan’s main island were yaezakura, like the one pictured above.
A cherry tree on Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path towards the end of April.
Look for: Shape of the Cherry Blossom tree
Some trees are shaped like umbrellas, others are Y-shaped, others are the “weeping” variety, and some are even shaped like waterfalls.
Weeping trees are called Shidarezakura, literally, “Sakura with drooping boughs”. These trees have a long lifespan and as a result can become very large. They are categorized as either having five petals, or having more than five petals.
Look for: Color of the blossoms
If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered why some cherry trees have white flowers and some have pink. For some varieties, it is because their blossoms change color over the course of their flower-lives. But for the most part, many are simply differently colored from the start. Cherry blossom tree come in white, yellow, even slightly light green and of course all imagineable shades of pink.
Right: カンヒザクラ Kanhizakura. This species of cherry tree is native to Japan, Vietnam, and China. It’s most famously seen in Taiwan and in Okinawa and other Ryukyu Islands of Japan. This variety blooms a bit later, but still falls into the “early bloomer” batch.
Look for: Fresh leaves
Some trees only grow leaves after the blossoms have hit their peak, which is one of the reasons some trees look so full. Many cherry tees don’t have green fresh leaves, but rather red or copper fresh leaves.
駿河台匂, Surugadai nioi, has many dense fresh leaves, making this tree look relatively sparse in comparison with bushier cherry trees.
Look for: Time of blooming (relative to surrounding Cherry Blossom tree)
Different varieties of cherry trees can bloom over a month apart (and in extreme cases, even in different seasons!)
- Early bloomers: Kanzakura, Kawazuzakura, Kanhizakura
- Main season bloomers: Somei Yoshino, Yamazakura
- Late bloomers: Shidarezakura (weeping cherry trees), Ichiyo, Ukon (yellow blossoms), Kanzan (common many-petaled blossoms)
- Really late bloomers: Kikuzakura (as many as one hundred petals per blossom).
- A whole ‘nother season: Jugatsuzakura (literally, “October cherry”)
This cherry tree in Kyoto was about 20 days “overdue” for full bloom. My guess is that this is a 菊桜, Kikuzakura, also known as a Chrysanthemum Cherry, because it’s a notoriously lame bloomer, typically popping up in Tokyo in late April to early May.