During cherry blossom season in Japan, it seems like the entire population of 126 million people emerges from their hibernation, leaving their heated kotatsu tables, only to lug about picnic gear and scramble to secure a prime flower-viewing spot at the park.
What with the crowds at urban parks and gardens, and specific restrictions at some locations, cherry blossom viewing can be quite a hassle to arrange on your own.
So, as spring is nearly upon us, we’ve compiled this guide to celebrating sakura season in Japan. Here we'll cover:
- Must-try sakura snacks (including a tasty sakura recipe for bakers)
- Tips on finding a sakura viewing spot and organizing a hanami picnic
- Recommended cherry blossom tours in Japan (in case you prefer to leave the planning to the pros!)
Seasonal Sakura Foods and Drinks
Depending on the region and weather, sakura season in Japan lasts for less than one month, with about one fleeting week of full bloom, though the sakura-inspired snacks start emerging as early as January!
Here are a few of our favorite sakura treats for spring.
1. Sakura Mochi: Kanto Style vs. Kansai Style
In Japan, food is a hotbed of competition between different regions. Who has the most succulent, highly-marbled wagyu beef? Whose okonomiyaki style is superior, the layered Hiroshima style or Osaka’s mixed version?
When it comes to wagashi sweets, sakura mochi is the battleground where Kanto and Kansai duke it out. On the right side, we have Tokyo’s champion, the refined Kanto-style sakura mochi: a smooth, flattened piece of mochi that envelops a ball of anko, sweet bean paste. On the left, there's the Kansai-style sakura mochi with a chewy texture, grains of glutinous rice still retaining some of their original integrity. A pickled cherry blossom leaf enrobes both.
The winner? You decide. Pick up your sweets at these wagashi shops in Tokyo before sakura season ends.
2. Sakura Latte and Frappuccino from Starbucks
Much like the Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte, appearing like clockwork across the U.S. come autumn, every year Starbucks Japan celebrates the start of spring with whipped cream-crowned sakura lattes and frappuccinos.
Not for the sensitive-of-tooth, somehow we can’t stop ourselves from trying the new formula of these saccharine-sweet sakura beverages every year.
3. Sakura Onigiri
Cherry blossom season isn’t just for sweets lovers. These sakura onigiri (rice balls) are gorgeous additions to any picnic. The salt-pickled Japanese cherry blossoms adorn the sides of rice balls in the spring, like edible pressed flowers. They’re almost too pretty to eat and make for a portable picnic snack, as well as being perfect for that #hanami Instagram snap.
For the full list of sakura-inspired treats, give Sakura Snacks for Cherry Blossom Season a read.
4. Sakura Meringues
Our original sakura meringue cookie recipe has all the delicateness and ephemerality of the cherry blossoms themselves. They're crisp and light, with a balance of sweetness, saltiness, and sakura aroma; made by whipping egg whites with sakura flavoring, and dusting freeze-dried salted sakura powder on top of the piped meringues before baking.
By no means an orthodox choice, this take on sakura treats would be a sweet homemade addition to any hanami spread.
How to Organize a Hanami Picnic
As the weather starts to warm up, a hanami picnic is the perfect excuse to gather friends and family for a bit of daytime revelry! If you decide to plan your own hanami rather than join a cherry blossom food tour like the ones we list below, here are some tips to help you celebrate cherry blossom season in style!
1. Pick a Cherry Blossom Viewing Spot
Parks and gardens all around Japan boast hundreds of cherry blossom trees of several varieties. But not all locations are hanami-friendly. Note that some parks don’t allow eating and drinking, so be sure to check their websites for more info.
We’ve compiled the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka in these guides:
- Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo
- Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto
- Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Osaka
2. Lay the Groundwork
As there is no way to make a reservation, go to your picnic location early to secure your spot. Bring a picnic blanket, tarp (if your group is prone to spills), or folding chairs to mark your territory. Don Quijote is a great place to pick up these hanami essentials.
3. Pack Food & Drinks
Pack or purchase a special hanami bento, drinks, and cherry blossom snacks like wagashi! Don’t forget to bring cups and plates (and go for reusable ones, if possible). A thermos of soup or Japanese tea is perfect to pass around in the evening when it starts getting chilly.
4. Bring Games
After you’ve taken enough sakura selfies, put down your smartphone (we know, we struggle with this, too) and enjoy some low-tech recreational activities. Bring a frisbee, ball, or deck of cards. Challenge your friends to kendama, the traditional Japanese “sword and ball” game. Or, if you’ve scored a particularly flat patch of ground or a bench, play daruma otoshi, a game composed of stacked wooden blocks, similar to Jenga.
5. Remember to Clean Up
To ensure these parks will always be open and welcoming to hanami revelers for years to come, leave your picnic location just as clean as you found it. Bring garbage bags and towels in case of spills. And please, don’t try to take home any cherry blossom branches.
Join a Cherry Blossom Food Tour in Japan
If an organized experience is more your style than a DIY hanami, leave it up to the pros! We've provided some fantastic cherry blossom tour options below.
1. Tokyo - Cherry Blossom Hanami and Food Tour in Yanaka
The Cherry Blossoms 2021 Hanami and Food Tour in Yanaka features the peaceful Tokyo neighborhood of Yanaka, a well-preserved traditional district that was once home to Japan’s most celebrated artisans and writers. You’ll browse shops and stalls along the Yanaka Ginza shopping street, stroll through backstreets lined with blooming sakura trees, and munch on local snacks in addition to a special seasonal hanami bento. Top it off with a Japanese sake tasting (or green tea) for a truly authentic hanami experience.
2. Tokyo - Cherry Blossom Festival: Evening in Nakameguro
Thankfully for the night owls, the evening doesn’t spell the end of the sakura fun! Along the Meguro River, sakura petals cascade into the water and the glow of the lanterns turns the canals pink. Party on in one of the trendiest neighborhoods of Tokyo, sipping rice wine as you sample sweets and salty senbei, then move to a local izakaya for dinner and a change of scenery. Book the Cherry Blossom Festival: Evening in Nakameguro 2020 to reserve your spot before they’re all gone.
3. Osaka - Osaka Cherry Blossom Food Tour
Join the Osaka Cherry Blossom Food Tour 2020 to get that iconic shot of Osaka in spring: Osaka Castle framed by lush, blooming sakura. With the hanami festivities in full swing, there’s no end to the seasonal street food available on the castle grounds. After you’ve sufficiently whet your appetite with sakura snacks, handmade soba noodles await at a local specialty restaurant.
4. Kyoto - Kyoto Cherry Blossom Food Tour
Just outside of Kyoto City’s downtown, in the Demachiyanagi area, cherry blossoms drip petals into the flowing Kamo and Takano rivers. Kyoto Cherry Blossom Food Tour 2020 offers a guided tour of this lesser-known neighborhood of Kyoto that’s nonetheless a popular cherry blossom viewing spot. Enjoy hanami like a local and explore Demachi Masugata Shopping Street and Shimogamo Shrine. When evening falls, you’ll tuck into a seasonal dinner at a local soba noodle restaurant, followed by dessert: a traditional treat that’s famous in Kyoto!
5. Miyagi - Cherry Blossom Viewing and Hanami Picnic in Shiogama
The Cherry Blossom Viewing and Hanami Picnic in Shiogama, located at the 1200-year-old Shiogama Shrine, is the whole package. It includes a private chef, spring-themed bento box, live shamisen performance, and traditional tea ceremony, as well as a parting gift. Don’t miss the blooming Shiogama-zakura trees, designated Japanese Natural Monuments.
This season, keep these tips in mind and have your best sakura viewing party yet. Enjoy the sakura-themed foods and drinks, join a cherry blossom food tour, or plan your perfect hanami picnic!