The blooming of cherry blossoms (sakura) is definitely a big event in Japan (and most of East Asia for that matter). It’s the end of winter, the start of spring – a time when trees start showing leaves and colours again, putting a rest to the monochromatic winter scenes of white snow and bare branches. To celebrate the blooming of sakura every year, people go out and play under the trees, hold picnics, eat, drink, and have fun. It’s like an annual countrywide revelry, and in Japan, they call it hanami.
The Shinjuku Gyoen
Perhaps the best spot in Tokyo for a casual stroll and relaxing hanami is the Shinjuku Gyoen, a huge park and garden that covers much of the east side of Shinjuku . The park is mainly accessible from two areas. One is coming from the Shinjuku station, where the park’s Shinjuku gate is a 10-15 minute leisurely walk to the east. The other is through the Sendagaya gate, which is just a hundred meters or a bit more from the JR Sobu line’s Sendagaya station.
On our visit to Shinjuku Gyoen, I decided that we enter through Sendagaya, and exit through the Shinjuku gate. This took us across the wide expanse of the park from southeast to northwest, and allowed us to see as much of it as we can with the limited time that we had. The park is truly huge, divided into gardens with different themes. If you’d like to go through the entire 58 hectares of it though, expect to spend a large part of your day there.
After exiting Sendagaya station, we took a turn to the right, passing through a tunnel under the tracks, and emerging in this narrow street in the picture below. The charming little street looked like a street in some small city somewhere else Japan, a enclave of small city life in the middle of the megalopolis of Tokyo. And a few meters away to the right from where I stood to take the photo, is the Sendagaya entrance of Shinjuku Gyoen.
The moment we entered the park, we were met by a barrage of sakura. For people who’ve never seen sakura before, like us, it was like a scene out of a painting. Shinjuku Gyoen has the most number of sakura trees among Tokyo’s parks, and in some places they make such a thick canopy that it looks like there’s a see of pink separating you from the sky.
Shinjuku Gyoen is also one of the more serene parks in Tokyo, most ideal for a quiet, peaceful stroll. There’s a small entrance fee (unlike the rest of Tokyo’s parks which are free), which though small, seems to make it a less attractive park for most hanami crowds. They don’t allow alcohol in the park too, and it closes pretty early, at 4:30pm, making it a totally unideal venue for anyone wanting a merry and tipsy hanami. Still, it works for the best, as what one gets is a beautiful, spacious and uncrowded park, even at the peak of the sakura season.
The sky was dull when we visited the park in the first week of April 2015. It was full overcast – all white with some occasional rain, yet no amount of bad weather could spoil the beauty of sakura in full bloom.
Another awesome place to see sakura is in Chidorigafuchi, an area around a couple of hundred of meters away from the Kudanchita subway station in central Tokyo.
The Chidorigafuchi was a defensive moat in the northern part of the gigantic Tokugawa-era Edo castle, which unfortunately burned some time after the Meiji restoration and is now gone. The moat lives on though, and it is now covered in both banks with sakura, and when they bloom they create a scene that could launch a thousand ships heading towards Japan. The sakura drooping down to the waters from both sides create a dreamy, other-worldly scene, and more so what they get lit up at night.
The Chidorigafuchi can get unbelievably packed with people though, more so on the good photo spots, so expect some mild and polite “box out” action if you want to get a good view of the sakura covered banks.
Still despite the huge and dense crowd, everything still seems so organised. People all move in one direction only, and no one hogs the good photo spots for long. They squeeze in quietly, take a few photos and admire the scene for a couple of minutes, and then squeeze out of the crowded area on their own accord, for the next person in the crowd to take their spot. And they do this “rotation” without anyone telling them to, and they know how to move around even without telling each other where to go. You will get squeezed, yes, and pushed mildly here an there, but never to the point that you’d think you’d run out of air. If this had been in Manila you would have been bruised and battered on your way in, and exhausted to the point of near death on your way out. Not to mention your cellphone and wallet may have already disappeared by then. And this you have to admire from the Japanese – it seems like orderliness is a national instinct they all acquired at birth.
Those who are fond of reading international news may have heard of Yazukuni before. It’s the Japanese shrine for the war dead, where all Japanese warriors who fell in wars from the start of the Japanese civilisation – up to World War 2, are honoured. And as the pains of the second world war still linger in East Asia, it is that part, the World War 2 part, that makes the Yazukuni controversial, especially among Japan’s closest neighbours.
Leaving wars and politics aside, the area around the Yazukinu shrine is filled with sakura as well. As it is just across the street from Chidorigafuchi, we decided to just pass by after we had our fill of photos of the moat.
The scene was the exact opposite of Shinjuku Gyoen. There were people everywhere, and the mood was festive. The sakura here are not lit up, so they’re not even noticeable in the photos, and here the sakura viewing takes a back seat to the full blown hanami picnics. Every bit of exposed ground that is not a road or a foot path is covered with picnic mats, makeshift or otherwise. People just ate, talked and drank the whole night, as if keeping an evening vigil. There were a lot of brightly lit food stalls too, adding to the liveliness of the atmosphere.
* These photos were taken on our visit to Japan on April 2015.