Cherry blossoms, Japan
For centuries, the Japanese have gathered underneath the clouds of pink and white flowers. With the trees in full bloom, the people let their joy and admiration flourish too.
For the cherry blossoms are more than just flowers in Japan – they are a symbol of nationhood and the patriotic spirit.
It’s for these reasons that the annual arrival of the cherry blossoms is celebrated with such ado in Japan.
The exact day that the flowers will bloom changes each year (and is different in various parts of the country). But nightly updates on television news programs in the lead-up keep the citizens abreast of the latest.
They wait with anticipation for confirmation of the day they’ll see the buds open in their area.
As it happens, I’ve arrived in Tokyo right in the middle of the cherry blossom season. On the streets, in front of buildings, over canals and in parks, the flowers brighten the city.
When the wind is strong and plucks them from the branches, they fall like white flakes through the air and look like a soft silky snow. People walking the streets will stop and take photos.
On the train, I’ve seen people show their companions the snaps they’ve taken that day of which they are proudest.
And then there’s the ‘hanami’ – the Japanese word for having a picnic under the cherry blossoms. This is the event that focuses the collective appreciation for the flowers.
In parks all across the country, groups of family and friends will come together with a tarpaulin, food and drink and spend the day with the blossoms as their floral roof.
The reason it has its own special name is because this practice began in the eighth century and has been going on for more than 1300 years now!
Although back then it was mainly those from the higher classes who would have spent their days at a picnic in the park, it has still been many centuries since it became a popular pastime for the commoners as well.
These days you see a whole cross-section of society in the park. Parents seem to use it as an excuse to get their children some fresh air… young groups seem to use it as an excuse to get drunk.
Like much in Japanese culture, there is deep symbolism in the cherry blossoms.
They are seen to represent the fragility and shortness of life – the ephemeral qualities which some see as beautiful and honourable. That’s why they have often been used as symbols for military campaigns or for the kamikaze pilots of the Second World War.
Many years before then, the cherry blossoms were seen to represent the theories of reincarnation in Buddhism.
All of this has not been forgotten, I imagine, because the Japanese are still very proud people who do not let go of their heritage and tradition. But it’s probably fair to say that it’s the aesthetics that are the main attraction these days.
It’s certainly true that it transforms the country’s cities into colourful metropolises where nature outshines the neon. That in itself is a strong enough link back to the men and women who first sat under these trees and spent the day with flowering joy and admiration.
Around Tokyo station
If you’re looking for a budget option, you can get comfortable dorm beds at the great Wise Owl Hostel or the modern Hostel Den.
Tokyo is an expensive city but APA Hotel Ginza-Takaracho is a great price for a nice and convenient option near the station.
For a very trendy modern hotel close to the station, I think you'll like The Gate Hotel Tokyo by Hulic.
And for one of the best hotels in Tokyo, I would recommend The Peninsula.
There are a couple of great budget options here, with good dorms beds at the cool Imano Hostel and the modern UNPLAN Shinjuku.
For an affordable hotel, a good option in central Shinjuku is IBIS Tokyo Shinjuku.
If you're looking for a cool design hotel, then Bespoke Hotel Shinjuku is a great choice.
And for a luxury stay, you can't go past the gorgeous Park Hyatt.