One of Japan's oldest and most-cherished customs, the hanami, or cherry blossom viewing party, has become a worldwide celebration that stretches from Vancouver to D.C. to Korea.
Based on the Chinese custom of viewing blossoming plum trees, this botanical harbinger of spring has been celebrated since the early 700s, when revelers toasted the new season with sake, haiku writing, and music. Nowadays, in places as far-reaching as Copenhagen and Vancouver, visitors can expect an exciting mix of these traditions with more modern activities like parades, pageants, and fireworks displays.
Hanami is all about timing: The blooming cycle of the sakura, or cherry tree, is short-lived, usually just one to two weeks from the first buds opening (kaika) to full bloom (mankai). But the beauty lingers a while longer, as blizzards of fluttering petals fill the air and blanket the ground. Note that Mother Nature plays a big role in the timing of Japanese and South Korean festivals, and dates for many have not been announced as of press time. Often these dates will be announced within a week of the start date; however, look at the 2010 cherry blossom festival dates when planning, which will give an approximate start date for this year's festival.
Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival
Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
The brilliant white-plaster exterior of the hilltop castle — said to resemble a heron in flight — serves as the backdrop to more than 1,000 sakura. The feudal castle complex of 80-plus buildings dates to the early 1300s and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, conveniently located about 60 miles northwest of Osaka (it's best accessed by the Sanyo rail line, one-day passes start at $25). The three-day festival features traditional drum and harp performances, a ceremonial tea service, and specialty food booths, though a casual picnic can be an equally satisfying way to enjoy the blossoms. To avoid crowds, be sure to arrive early (the grounds open at 9 a.m. daily), and move well away down a flowering path to find a secluded spot by one of the pagoda-like towers.
Don't Miss: The subtle hues of the illuminated cherry blossoms at night. Though the official festival lasts only three days, the blooms should stick around for about two weeks provided the weather is mild. Avoid the crowds by visiting on a nonfestival evening; the blooms stay lit throughout the two-week blooming period.
When to Go: Festival dates have not been set as of press time. In 2010, the castle park was open to the public for night viewing from April 2 through 11, with the festival taking place April 2 through 4. Follow the bloom forecast on Japan Guidefor updates.
Where to Stay: The family-owned, 50-room Hotel Claire Higasa is a short walk from both the main rail station and the castle grounds. Be sure to request a room on the 7th floor with a castle view; these rooms are kitted out with a Jacuzzi from which one can soak and take in the beauty of the Himeji Castle. Doubles from $105, hotel-higasa.com.
Kitakami Tenshochi Cherry Blossom Festival
Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture, Japan
The overwhelming density of cherry trees in this park — more than 10,000 lining a 1.4-mile pathway along the Kitakami River — certainly gives this festival, located in the north of the island Honshu in Japan, top marks. Add in river cruises, winding waterside strolls, and nighttime lantern viewing, and this may well be the most romantic of all cherry blossom celebrations. As the country's annual Children's Day (May 5) draws closer, hundreds of colorful koinobori (carp-shaped cloth flags) are strung across the river. When wind passes through them, the carp appear to be swimming upstream—a symbol of strength and perseverance.
Don't Miss: A horse-drawn carriage ride through a tunnel of blooming trees along the riverfront ($5 for adults, $2 for children under 12, and free for children under three).
When to Go: The festival period has not been set as of press time. In 2010, the cherry blossom festival ran from April 15 through May 5. The blooms are expected to peak in late April.
Where to Stay: Conveniently located near the Kitakami rail station, the Hotel Route-Inn Kitakami-Ekimae is just a 15-minute walk to the riverfront. And this is one hotel where you may not mind getting the final bill, which you'll receive as an intricately folded piece of origami. Doubles from $150, route-inn.co.jp .
Matsumae Koen Park Cherry Blossom Festival
Matsumae Town, Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan
More than 10,000 cherry trees burst with color in this seaside town surrounding the famed 17th-century Matsumae Castle, with its graceful, three-tiered, curved eaves. It's located on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, which means that the cherry blossoms spring to life late in the season, from late April to mid-May. The grounds hold more than 250 varieties of the famed tree, including the so-called "weeping sakura," with branches that droop like a willow. A parade opens the festivities, which also feature local seafood, crafts, and even a karaoke contest.
Don't Miss: A bite of local delicacies from vendors on the castle grounds. Favorites include iwanori seaweed (harvested from the cold, deep water of the Tsugaru Strait and used in miso soup) and bottled Northern sea urchin with wild leeks.
When to Go: Festival dates have not been set as of press time. In 2010, the festival ran from April 29 through May 16.
Where to Stay: The Hakodate Danshaku Club is a sleek hotel named for an early-twentieth-century baron who brought modern British shipbuilding techniques — and a hearty variety of potato — to the region. Rooms on the south side of the building afford views of Mount Hakodate and the surrounding harbor. Doubles from $120, danshaku-club.com.
Copenhagen Sakura Festival
Copenhagen, Denmark ( sakurafestival.dk)
To celebrate the bicentennial of Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen in 2005, the Danish Honorary Consul of Hiroshima gave Copenhagen 200 flowering cherry trees, sparking a new city tradition. The two-day cherry blossom festival takes place in Langelinie Park, where the first trees were planted — and appropriately enough, home to the city's famed Little Mermaid statue, based on an Andersen tale. In addition to traditional martial arts demonstrations and tea ceremonies, a number of Japanese crafts, from origami to calligraphy, are taught in free workshops daily. Because the treesare relatively new, the blooms become more brilliant each year as the trees age.
Don't Miss: The flea market, or nomi no ichi, near the main stage, which is filled with handicrafts like wooden tops, wire sculptures, manga-style comic books, and specialty candy.
When to Go: May 7–8, 2011
Where to Stay: Located two blocks from the famed Tivoli Gardens, the cozy Hotel Alexandra is filled with chic retro Danish design originals and homey personal touches, like a warm lobby library. Doubles from $102, epoquehotels.com .
International Cherry Blossom Festival
Macon, Ga. ( cherryblossom.com)
This Georgia city of roughly 93,000 bills its festival as "the pinkest party on Earth." And though this celebration may be one of the most unabashedly Westernized of the group, it can also lay claim to being one of the biggest, with over 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees spread throughout the city. It all began in 1952 after Macon realtor William A. Fickling Sr. made a fateful trip to the nation's capital. Enraptured by the pretty pink bloom, he began handing out cuttings from his backyard cherry tree to local friends and neighbors. Soon, the city was awash in pink every spring. Nowadays, the 10-day cherry blossom festival includes a beauty pageant, a huge street party, a fireworks show, and a "balloon glow" — a nighttime display of illuminated hot-air balloons.
Don't Miss: The Bed Race — as in, yes, bed frames and mattress on wheels — happens on Cherry Street, in which teams of locals race decorated beds through historic downtown (March 19, 1 p.m.).
When to Go: March 18–27, 2011.
Where to Stay: Built in 1842 by a former mayor, the colonnaded Greek Revival 1842 Inn offers a wide front porch and 19 guest rooms with four-poster beds—a romantic and historic starting point from which to enjoy the blossoms (doubles from $189 during the festival, including breakfast, 1842inn.com ). The Macon Marriott City Center trades in antebellum charm for a convenient location, a colorful lounge for après-festival cocktails—and a lower price tag. Doubles from $130, marriott.com.
National Cherry Blossom Festival
Washington, D.C. ( nationalcherryblossomfestival.org)
Ninety-nine years ago, the mayor of Tokyo gave 3,000 sakura to the American people as a gift. That simple gesture of friendship has grown into one of the world's largest celebrations of Japanese culture. The 16-day cherry blossom festival kicks off with the Blossom Kite Festival, which includes handmade kite displays and exciting stunt flying competitions, and ends with a lavish parade down Constitution Avenue, featuring huge helium balloons and elaborate floats. Paddleboat rides in the Tidal Basin are ideal for families as well as canoodling couples looking to up the romance factor.
Don't miss: Free nightly lantern walks (8 p.m.–10 p.m.), during which park rangers tell stories about the festival's history. Meet at the Tidal Basin, either at the entrance of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial or the Thomas Jefferson Memorial welcome tent. You may even pick up some planting tips along the way.
When to Go: March 26–April10, 2011. National Park Service horticulturalists keep a close eye on the blooms and expect them to peak around April 4.
Where to Stay: Perched right on Capitol Hill, the fashionable and eco-friendly Hotel George is a short, 15-minute walk from the festival and perfectly situated for exploring any of the monuments, galleries, and attractions along the National Mall. George Washington may never have slept at this namesake boutique property, but he'll watch over you as you do—each of the 139 rooms features a Pop Art portrait of our first president. Doubles from $139, hotelgeorge.com .
On the eastern border of Brooklyn's sprawling 585-acre Prospect Park, the 101-year-old Brooklyn Botanic Garden plays home to more than 60 performances and exhibits during this weekend festival. Set among the ponds and wooden bridges of the peaceful Japanese Garden, activities range from the traditional (ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging) to the contemporary (manga — Japanese comics — exhibits). In this particularly family-friendly cherry blossom festival, children are offered the chance to fold origami and create floral arrangements out of recycled objects. Plein-air painters spread throughout the blossoms, often finding buyers among fellow visitors.
Don't miss: The Hanagasa Kai Parade (April 30, 1 p.m.), or flower hat dance, put on by the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York. Two versions—a children's dance and an adult dance — feature colorful kimonos, flower-bedecked hats, and vibrant paper parasols.
When to Go: April 30–May 1, 2011.
Where to Stay: Hot on the heels of Aloft's expansion into Harlem last December, Aloft Brooklyn opens its doors this April 21 in the up-and-coming Downtown Brooklyn neighborhood. Streamlined and urban, the boutique property offers luxurious touches such as Bliss Spa products, oversize showerheads, and a trendy lobby bar. Doubles from $149, aloftbrooklyn.com .
Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival
San Francisco ( nccbf.org)
San Francisco's Japantown is one of only three remaining Japanese enclaves in the U.S. And while one would expect fewer trees in such an urban setting, cherry trees are definitely present along the pedestrian mall that makes up the prettiest part of the neighborhood. For two weekends, the festival includes classical and folk dancing, performances on the koto (a Japanese stringed instrument), and thunderous taiko drumming. Dozens of vendors crowd the streets, peddling favorites like takoyaki (octopus balls) and imagawayaki (sweet azuki bean paste cakes).
Don't Miss: The grand parade (April 17, 1 p.m.), which begins at San Francisco's city hall and travels 15 blocks to Japantown to close the festival in spectacular fashion. The Cherry Blossom Queen and her court wear elaborate silk kimonos, as drummers keep the beat in what can only be described as a rhythmic ballet.
When to Go: April 9–10 and 16–17, 2011.
Where to Stay: The Hotel Kabuki offers traditional ryokan-style lodging right in the heart of Japantown. Rooms feature sleek bedding and Japanese touches, like Asian teakettles and rice-paper screens. The grounds include a koi pond and Japanese garden. Doubles from $119, jdvhotels.com .
Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival
Vancouver, B.C. ( vcbf.ca)
Vancouver only began celebrating the bloom in 2005, making it one of the youngest of all cherry blossom festivals. But the monthlong festivities are already sprawling, with dozens of events spread over more than 50 city parks. You can take your pick of picturesque picnic spots — from 1,000-acre coastal Stanley Park to the lovingly planted public gardens of Queen Elizabeth Park to Kitsilano Beach Park, with its blooming trees, weeping willows, and views of English Bay. Check the festival website for a map that details which type of tree appears in each park. The Cherry Jam, a downtown lunchtime concert, brings the rhythms of traditional taiko drumming to office workers looking to celebrate spring.
Don't Miss: The Haiku Invitational, in which budding poets submit their best 5-7-5 odes to the sakura (anyone can participate
online). Poems are posted on the festival website through the spring, and winners will be announced in the fall—there's no cash prize, but the victors will have his or her poems read by celebrities, featured in the 2012 festival, and some pieces may even appear on TransLink SkyTrains and buses throughout Vancouver.
When to Go: March 26–April 22, 2011.
Where to Stay: A former motel that's undergone an artful rebirth, the Listel Hotel offers multiple styles of accommodations: For instance, each room on the Gallery floors features the works of a unique contemporary artist, including Robert Indiana, while rooms on the Museum floors pay homage to Canada's rugged Northwest coast, with carved cedar headboards, hand-forged ironworks, and original art from the Tlingit and Kwakwaka'wakw nations. doubles from $145, thelistelhotel.com .
Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
Jinhae, South Korea
South Korea's largest cherry blossom festival honors naval hero Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who famously held back the Japanese invasion of the peninsula more than 400 years ago. And what an honor it is: More than 220,000 cherry trees burst with white blooms — not pink — giving the seaside town an ethereal ambience during the peak blossom period. While the trees are scattered throughout the city, our favorite spots include Anmin Road, which includes a 3.5-mile tunnel of trees, making it a perfect promenade for a springtime walk, and Jehwangsan Park, where one can ascend the 365 steps of the Ilnyeon Gyedan (or One Year Stairway) to experience the incredible vista of thousands of cherry blossoms against the backdrop of sea and pine-studded mountains.
Don't Miss: A walk over the Yeojwacheon Bridge, almost hidden from view because of the overhanging trees. If you're lucky enough to get a windy day, you'll be treated to a snowfall of petals.
When to Go: Festival dates have not been set as of press time. Previous blooms have occurred in late March to early April, though a particularly snowy winter may delay this year's celebrations.
Where to Stay: There is little in the way of accommodations in Jinhae, but nearby Changwon, about 30 minutes from Jinhae by shuttle train (about $2 each way), offers accessible hotels. The Pullman Ambassador Changwon City7, which opened in 2008,is outfitted with public steam baths, Jacuzzis, and spa services. Doubles from $139, accorhotels.com .
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