Sakura III: The Beauty of Hanami in Tokyo
The yearly hanami* celebrations hit their peak in Tokyo last weekend. Millions flocked to the many parks, rivers and other locations where the sakura blossoms are in their highest concentrations.
* hanami = “flower viewing”
The atmosphere was of happy but relaxed excitement with frenetic activity and huge crowds at major viewing spots. Cameras out, smiles aplenty, exclamations of wonder and bursts of laughter ringing out everywhere.
People milled around taking phenomenal numbers of photographs with everything from phones to high-end professional cameras.
As usual, people gathered to celebrate the event from morning till night. Also as usual, copious quantities of food and drink were consumed under the cherry blossoms.
Friends, families and companies all staked out their patch of ground and enjoyed a weekend of beautiful weather.
The selection of hanami photos in this post is from 6 of the best locations in Tokyo and I hope conveys something of the variety of different hanami spaces and the feeling of this time of year.
Ueno Koen (Ueno Park)
Ueno Koen is one of the larger gathering spots in Tokyo for cherry-blossom viewing. Night after night thousands come to eat and drink under the flowers.
These trees at the southern tip of the park bloom a couple of weeks before the majority of other trees in the park. The arrival of their flowers alerts people that the main sakura explosion is imminent, and it marks the beginning of a couple of frenetic photo-taking weeks.
The preparations for gatherings begin early in the day. Many companies will send an employee to claim a spot in the morning and sit there the entire day until everyone else finishes work and joins them.
Others simply lay out the groundsheet in the morning and then go off to work. Japanese consideration being as it is, they can return any time later secure in the knowledge that the groundsheet will still be there and nobody else will have stolen their spot.
As evening arrives and the lights come on, the crowds start to build.
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The main hanami area of Ueno Koen is a long sloping path lined with trees forming an incredible pink tunnel. Both sides are cordoned off with ropes behind which most of the celebrations take place.
For these outdoor gatherings, as is also the case inside Japanese homes, shoes are taboo. Everyone leaves their shoes at the edge of the groundsheet before joining the party.
The revelry continues late, usually winding down only when the last trains of the night are about to leave nearby Ueno station. These last trains of the night are packed to bursting with happy workers.
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Yanaka Reien (Yanaka Cemetery)
Cemeteries are some of the most popular viewing/gathering spots at this time of year as many feature hundreds of cherry blossom trees dotted in and around the graves. In contrast to most western graveyards, Japan cemeteries tend to be extremely clean and well-maintained.
Not far from Ueno Koen is Yanaka Reien. Being one of the largest cemeteries in Tokyo with a renowned promenade of trees it therefore attracts many viewers for both day and night-time gatherings.
All over the graveyard sakura trees are dotted around and in between the stones and other trees, forming beautiful contrasts and backgrounds.
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The quiet road running through the cemetery provides a rest spot for many taxi drivers who park and sleep. Their engines continue running – in winter with heating and in summer with air-conditioning.
Inokashira Koen (Inokashira Park)
Inokashira Koen is one of the more popular parks in western Tokyo. The compact narrow lake is surrounded by overhanging sakura and hundreds of people rent pedal boats to cruise its waters.
The edges of the lake are rich in vegetation so perfect for smaller groups to nestle in between trees and bushes for (slightly) more private gatherings.
To the delight of many children the lake is populated with koi (carp) and ducks.
The park being such a picturesque spot and sakura lasting only a few days, crowds of course descend in huge numbers over the weekend. With lakeside space so limited, crowds overflow all the way up the sides of the park filling almost every piece of available ground.
In Japan pizza deliveries will come anywhere. It’s not uncommon for people having their parties in the park to order pizza or other food from nearby restaurants. However at this time of year it can be an immense problem for the delivery people to find their customers.
This guy walked back and forth a number of times along the path, his phone glued to his ear.
Families and friends come to celebrate for hours. Here, hidden among a pile of coats, food and boxes a baby is left to sleep. No more than 2 metres from the main path and out of view of parents, I imagine such a situation would be considered problematic in the UK. Here in Japan, it’s no problem.
A few groups of friends bring musical instruments to add to the atmosphere.
A springtime picnic paradise, Inokashira Koen thoroughly deserves its high reputation.
Shoes off, of course.
Aoyama Reien (Aoyama Cemetery)
Another large cemetery in central Tokyo, Aoyama Reien is also a tranquil and popular hanami spot.
A long central sloping road lined with sakura trees forms the main hub of the cemetery.
On either side, smaller paths provide ground for groups to gather.
People often bring their pets to take photographs under the cherry blossoms. Usually that means funny little dogs wearing clothes. In this case though, a man has brought his rabbit, along with a small table on which to pose it.
Some of the most beautiful views can be had from the smaller quieter paths, where a striking glimpse of vivid pink sakura contrasts against stones or the dark tones of other trees.
The two images below were taken at the same spot just 3 days apart. On the left, the blossoms are at their peak. On the right, many of the petals have fallen and the tree branches are noticeably thinner and browning.
It’s a perfect example of the transient nature of the cherry blossoms, and it underlines the critical importance of correctly timing one’s hanami celebrations (more about this sakura timing in this previous post).
Shinjuku Gyoen (Shinjuku Imperial Gardens)
Among some 20,000 trees, these gardens contain over 1,500 cherry trees and attract huge crowds during hanami season. With many wide open grassy spaces, Shinjuku Gyoen doesn’t quite have the same feelings of compact intimacy as the spots described above (if you can consider a park overrun with thousands of celebrating groups as intimate) but nevertheless has its own unique character.
Hanami time means lots of photography and painting.
Here photographers crowd around a rather uncommon cherry blossom tree on which bloom 3 different coloured flowers.
The open expanses of grass, meticulously maintained, provide extremely comfortable gathering spots without the need for groundsheets.
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Photographs being taken everywhere.
A downside of sudden leaps in crowd numbers: very long toilet queues.
The busiest day of the year for rubbish collectors. Yet the entire park is still almost spotlessly clean. Amazingly, despite the number of visitors there’s no need for a big post-event cleanup.
Sumida Koen, Asakusa (Asakusa Sumida Park)
In Tokyo’s east on the banks of the Sumida River is the old downtown area of Asakusa. Lining the river is what has become one of the most impressive viewing spots of all – Sumida Koen.
Not only is there an abundance of riverside cherry blossom, but the park is directly across the river from the Tokyo Sky Tree project which ensures spectacular views by day and even more spectacular by night.
Sakura lines the opposite bank, obscuring a riverside highway from view.
A family relaxes having set up their hanami gathering spot along the edge of the path, and now awaits the others’ arrival. This spot by night would become incredibly crowded with people of all ages.
The park provides an incredible view of Tokyo Sky Tree complemented with foreground sakura. Photographers jostle for the right spot and the right moment.
No rabbits here, just dogs. Lots of dogs. Perhaps even Idol Dogs.
One of the most moving moments of the day, as an incredibly frail old woman was gently brought into the park and slowly wheeled around by family members and nurses. She lay on her back the entire time.
This perhaps being the final hanami of her life, the entourage moved from place to place in the park, pausing for a minute or two every so often, allowing her to gaze softly upwards at the pink blossoms which were at their peak that very afternoon.
She would occasionally raise a frail arm to indicate a direction in which next to move.
After dark the park glowed softly with the sakura illuminated by lanterns and a few spotlights.
Far more tranquil than Ueno Koen at night, a few small groups sat and quietly chatted as they consumed their celebratory food and drink.
Tokyo Sky Tree, lit for one of the first times that evening was a spectacular sight.
This post’s locations (click for information on each):