The station was a seething mass. I mean literally a seething mass. Of bodies. What on earth was I thinking when I arranged for us to meet at Naka Meguro station?! And more importantly, how was I going to find my friends?
It was a very special time of year and we'd all agreed to meet at one of our favourite spots in Tokyo to celebrate one of the biggest events on the Japanese calendar: the cherry blossom festival in Japan. Naka Meguro is famous for its cherry trees that line the river. The problem is everyone else knows it too.
Why is the celebration called 'Hanami?' It's all in the translation.
'Hana' in Japanese means flower. 'Mi' comes from the verb to watch in Japanese. Put them together and you've got cherry blossom watching. It's what the cherry blossom festival is all about.
Who goes along to watch these falling petals? Everyone and anyone. Virtually all the Japanese people I know will celebrate 'Hanami.' Some celebrate with family, others with co-workers or friends. But whatever the choice, this is an annual tradition with some very deep roots.
Companies arrange Hanami parties for their employees, university students have it marked on their academic calendar, and mums and dads plan ideal settings to introduce their little ones to the wonders of the cherry blossom festival. Who you'll celebrate with is up to you.
But before you start thinking about who your fellow partygoers will be, you'll need to know when the cherry blossom will be open.
One of the difficulties for short stay visitors wanting to enjoy the Hanami season is knowing when to visit to catch the blooms in all their glory. The trick lies in following the flowers as they open in different parts of the country. The cherry trees start to bloom in the South of Japan usually around February time. The front of flowers then gradually moves North, finally reaching Hokkaido around May.
The Japanese weather forecast follows the flower front and predicts when it will begin in each area. And errors are costly. Many companies will book a venue for their hanami party and it's an expensive mistake if the flowers arrive earlier or later than expected.
If you're going to be in Tokyo and want to put the cherry blossom festival on your itinerary, the usual time is the last week in March to the middle of April. But be warned. There are no guarantees. The Tokyo weather is a moody beast so there's room for manoeuvre either side of these dates.
Now you know how to track the flowers to make sure they'll be in bloom, it's time to decide where you'll celebrate. There's plenty of places to choose from.
The most popular locations to join in the fun are parks, castles, riverbanks, temples, and shrines. In Tokyo this means places like Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyoen, the Imperial Palace, or Yasukuni Shrine, along with lots of smaller more local parties as well. If you're still not sure where to go, look for any happy gatherings of Japanese people and you're likely looking at a local hotspot.
At weekends and in the evenings, these places will be full of people strolling through the grounds or sitting under their chosen cherry tree. You'll see groups marking their pitch by rolling out their picnic mats. In popular places the best spots are often reserved as soon as the sun comes up, so be prepared.
Once everyone is gathered, it's time to break open the sake, or whatever your preferred choice of beverage, and start your own Hanami cherry blossom festival. Which brings me back to our favourite Hanami spot...
It's our top spot for watching the pink petals. As long as you don't mind the crowds! We did find our friends that day thanks to having our trusty cell phones with us. One phone call had us all agreeing to meet about a 5 minute walk from the station away from the mass congregation by the exit gates. Then it was just a case of working our way through the crowd and out the other side : )
Want to know where all the good spots are to see the flower front in Tokyo? Visit our Japanese cherry blossom page.
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