The flowering cherry (sakura) blossom viewing season in Japan attracts international attention. When I checked Google News just prior to writing this article, there were scores of English language articles on the subject in media ranging from the tabloid New York Post to the left-wing elite-oriented Guardian.
Most headlines noted that the blossom viewing was taking place despite the pandemic.
That is indeed the case, but compared to last year when access to prime viewing sites was blocked, pandemic precautions this year are light touch focused on limiting picnics and alcohol consumption.
Having returned to Tokyo on March 27th from a trip to Kyushu, I took advantage of the exceptionally good weather on March 28 and 29 to do my own highly subjective survey of the blossoms while trying out some new photographic equipment.
This pond is adjacent to Ueno Park, itself a prime blossom viewing site in Tokyo.
The blossoms were at their peak when I visited on March 28 and the walkways were crowded with people admiring the blossoms and taking photos.
All of the pedal boats available for rental were in use and there was a long line of people waiting for their chance to rent one to view the blossoms from the pond side.
Because there are numerous high-rise buildings near the pond and the Tokyo Sky Tree can be seen from it, the pond is a good venue for not just close ups of the blossoms and selfies, but also photos that show the blossoms in this very urban context.
I am fortunate to live within walking distance of this park, which is listed in almost all guides to blossom viewing in Tokyo. Asukayama Park gets live television news coverage every year and in non-pandemic years all flat areas, including concrete covered event areas, are filled with families and affinity groups enjoying picnics.
The affinity groups are noted for a high level of alcohol consumption. One of my former colleagues ended up being rushed to a hospital in an ambulance after overdoing it at a blossom viewing picnic at Asukayama.
Aside from the blossoms, the park has three museums: Paper Museum, Kita City Asukayama Museum, and the Shibusawa Memorial Museum dedicated to the early-modern venture capitalist Shibusawa Eiichi. His likeness will appear on ten thousand yen notes beginning in 2024.
His mansion compound was adjacent to the park. Two buildings that survived the B-29 fire bombs raids are open to the public and there is a souvenir shop selling Shibusawa items that was built as part of the promotion NHK historical drama “Reach Beyond the Blue Sky” that was broadcast from February, 2021, to December, 2021.
Just north of the park is a segment of the Shakujii River that is lined with sakura for a kilometer or so westward from Oji Station.
There are other segments farther west that are also lined with sakura. And year round the river is a favorite walking and cycling course.
Although not as famous as the Meguro River sakura, the Kanda River between the Edogawabashi station on the Yurakucho Line and Omokagebashi stop on the Arakawa tram line makes it into most guides to blossom viewing in Tokyo.
The river itself is not at all attractive and sometimes has a distinct detergent odor. But the blossoms and later the leaf-covered trees make up for the ugliness of the concrete lined river.
When the blossoms fall like snow to the river below, the result is singularly charming.
There are three points of interest on the north side of the blossom lined segment of the river: the Higo Hosokawa Garden, the Sekiguchi Bashoan (hermitage of the poet Basho), and the Chinzanso Hotel Garden.
The Hosokawa Garden has only a few cherry trees but it is a favorite site for newly-wed couples having their pictures taken in kimono (women) and hakama (men). When the sakura are in bloom, couples move to the adjacent Kanda river for photos with the blossoms as a backdrop.
The Chinzanso Hotel occupies a site that was the mansion of the Meiji era oligarch Yamagata Aritomo, a major figure in the development of a European military and legal system in Japan.
The garden of the Hotel is noted for its cherry blossoms, but viewing is limited to guests and hotel patrons.
Koishikawa Botanical Park
This park is a research facility of Tokyo University (aka Todai) that also functions as a public park for families with children and people simply looking for a quiet natural oasis in Tokyo. I have previously taken Koishikawa Botanical Park up in articles about ajisai (hydrangea) and higanbana (spider lilies).
On the day I visited, the park was busy with a steady stream of visitors, many of whom were enjoying picnic lunches under a large stand of cherry trees to the west of the hot houses that are a great place to try macro photography of exotic tropical plants.
The park boasts a large stand of somei yoshino trees near the hot houses, and broad grounds where families enjoy picnic lunches under the sakura at the Botanical Park.
Because the park is a 10 minute walk from the Hakusan Station on the Tokyo Metro Mita Line and charges a fee (￥500 yen for adults) it does not attract the extreme crowds that some other sites do. Moreover, because the park is so large (16.15 hectares, 39.9. acres), it is always possible to find a quiet, secluded spot to eat a picnic lunch or simply relax.
The park also contains a museum dedicated to early modern medical instrumentation and technology, but unfortunately this is still closed due to COVID-19 considerations.
Tokyo Metro Formal Gardens
Because I live within walking distance of two formal Tokyo Metro Japanese gardens (日本庭園) managed by the Tokyo metro government (Furukawa Teien and Rikugien) and easy cycling distance to two others (Koishikawa Korakuen and Kyu-Iwasaki-tei) that I have written about for JAPAN Forward, I bought a year pass in October., 2021 (4000 yen adults, 2000 yen 65 and over).
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I have been able to make little use of my pass. I can think of no science that would justify closing large gated open air venues where the number of visitors can easily be controlled.
The [illogical] restrictions were, however, lifted on March 22, and I visited three of the four sites I have previously covered in JAPAN Forward articles.
Although cherry blossoms and their viewing are strongly associated with Japan and its culture, flowering cherry trees are not a conspicuous feature of most Japanese formal gardens because the design philosophy is based on a miniaturized abstraction of large scale natural scenery.
Formal gardens do not have the extended corridors found in public parks such as Ueno Park or Showa Kinen Park. Nor do they have the large flat grassy areas that lend themselves to picnics.
Consequently, Kyu-Furukawa Teien has only a few cherry trees close to the English-style mansion that was built in 1917 for a Meiji-era entrepreneur.
Rikugien is famous for a very large and very old shidare sakura (weeping cherry tree). And while this tree is a popular backdrop for selfies and commemorative photos, it is outside the gate leading to the formal garden itself.
Inside the garden, there is only one flowering cherry tree of note. It is adjacent to the single commercial facility within the garden, a small shop offering traditional sweets and green tea.
Korakuen adjacent to Tokyo Dome also has only a small number of cherry trees. The location and the structure of the park nevertheless lends itself to striking combinations of blossom in the foreground with Tokyo Dome or high-rise business blocks in the background, or other foliage in the background that highlights the cherry blossoms themselves.
Sakura in Politics
When I researched the English language guides to blossom viewing sites in Tokyo, I quickly spotted something that struck me as anomalous. The area near Chidorigafuchi, the site of the national cemetery for unknown war dead appeared, but Yasukuni Shrine did not.
Both are well known viewing sites and both attract an enormous number of visitors. Moreover, it is a single tree within the Yasukuni Shrine that is used to declare the official beginning of sakura bloom in Tokyo.
Before pandemic restrictions cut off foreign tourists, the sakura in Yasukuni Shrine were a popular backdrop of Chinese tourists taking selfies.
I cannot help but wonder if the many references to Chidorigafuchi and the much more limited number of references to Yasukuni is to be explained at least in part by political correctness. Yasukuni is seen, completely incorrectly, as a site where “Class A war criminals” are “worshiped” by “right-wing politicians” and “militarists,” whereas Chidorigafuchi is non-controversial and has been proposed as an alternative to the Yasukuni Shrine.
Sakura in the Hood
Homes in posh residential districts such as Tokiwadai or DenenChofu often have their own small-scale formal gardens and/or flowering trees, including sakura. But as I have described in JAPAN Forward, plebeian (shitamachi) residential districts have street and curb gardens that make use of potted plants hanging from walls or situated in the verge between the house and the street.
In my neighborhood potted sakura were doing their best to provide a blossom viewing experience for those trudging to the nearest rail station or on their way to local shops.
A nearby dual use park (recreation and evacuation) provided a splendid display of early blooming sakura as the Somei Reien was located in the area that was the source of the most common flowering cherry variety in Japan, the Somei Yoshino.
Tokyo sakura were officially declared to be at their peak on March 29. That is a broad sweep generalization, however, based on the most common variety, the Somei Yoshino. Early blooming varieties had already dropped their blossoms and were leaf covered by that date.
At the same time, less common late blooming varieties and trees at higher elevations in the mountainous parts of Tokyo (Okutama) have yet to reach their peak.
Rain and wind during the week of March 28 sped up the natural fall of blossoms, but when I did a quick check on April 1, I found a wide variation in the blossom to leaf ratio. Trees along the Kanda River were showing blossoms and leaves, whereas in Asukawa Park the trees had lost blossoms but were showing few leaves.
In the Somei Cemetery, the many sakura were only slightly off their peak. Still near their peak in the recreation and evacuation park near my SOHO were the Somei Yoshino and shidare sakura.
Wherever you are in the Tokyo area, a few days of blossom viewing remain.
Photos and essay by: Earl H. Kinmonth
(Video by Shaun Fernando)
Find other stories about Tokyo and nearby areas by Dr. Kinmonth at this link.