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Sakura Zensen: Following Japan's Cherry Blossom Front 18

Every year in Japan, the cherry blossom front, or 'Sakura Zensen', sweeps the nation from south to north. Starting with the first blooms in Okinawa in February, the front reaches Kyūshū and Honshū by early April and arrives in the northernmost island of Hokkaidō two or three weeks later. Millions of Japanese participate in Hanami, literally 'looking at flowers', when the cherry blossoms bloom in their part of the country in a time-honoured tradition dating back over 1200 years. Hanami picnics and rowdy parties are one of the most popular yearly customs and as spring approaches, Japan catches cherry blossom fever as Sakura-flavoured sushi, chocolate and soft drinks appear in shops and markets. A team of meteorologists is even specifically tasked with forecasting and monitoring the cherry blossom front as it sweeps northward, leaving Japan covered in an ocean of blooming trees and pastel pink and milky white coloured flowers and petals. Few Japanese icons come close to matching the cultural significance of the annual blooming of the Sakura and from Okinawa to Hokkaidō, exploring Shinto shrines, Samurai homes and a certain iconic Japanese mountain along the way, we check out some of the best places to view Japan's breathtaking cherry blossom front.

Nakijin Gusuku, Okinawa, Japan

Apr 11 2017

When Sakura season arrives in Okinawa between mid-January and early February every year, the ruined castle of Nakijin Gusuku in the northwest of the island is one of the first iconic Japanese landmarks to see the cherry blossoms begin to bloom. Nestled on a rocky outcrop on the coast of Okinawa's Motobu Peninsula, Nakijin Castle faces out over the East China Sea and was first built by the Hokuzan, one of the three kingdoms which ruled the island in the fourteenth century before it became a key coastal fortification during the Ryūkyū Kingdom which unified Okinawa in 1429. During the island's Sakura season, the cherry blossoms add another mercurial and dark pink dimension to the 1500 metres of limestone wall which remain of Nakijin Gusuku and the castle is one of Okinawa's most popular Hanami spots. Image Date: 02/27/2006

Nakijin Gusuku, Okinawa, Japan

Apr 12 2017

A dark and almost electric shade of pink, Okinawa's cherry blossoms are unique from the milky white and lighter pink petals and flowers seen throughout the rest of Japan during Sakura season and whereas the Sakura seen on the larger islands of Honshū, Kyūshū and Hokkaidō grow and bloom on Yoshino cherry trees. Okinawa's darker cherry blossoms are known as Kanhi Sakura, which can also be seen on Taiwan, 730 kilometres to the west across the East China Sea and at night as the cherry blossoms bloom at Nakijin Gusuku ever year, the pathways of the castle ruins are illuminated with Okinawan Yomitan lanterns. The paths are bathed under fluorescent light as part of the Nakijin Gusuku Sakura Festival, which sees the castle's opening hours extended for two weeks after the first cherry blossom has bloomed and has now been held for a decade.

Hirano-jinja, Kyoto, Japan

Apr 14 2017

As the imperial and classical capital city of Japan, Kyoto is home to over two thousand individual Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. Devoted to Kami, the spirits of Shinto gods, honouring Buddhist master and sects and housing paradise Zen gardens, every single one of these religious landmarks serves a specific purpose and Kyoto is also famous for its breathtaking cherry blossom viewing spots, including Lake Biwa, the canals running off the Kamo River and the imperial palace park of Kyoto-gosho. Hirano-jinja, just to the west of Ritsumeikan University in the north of Kyoto, is a Shinto shrine famed throughout Japan for its connection to the Sakura and the cherry blossom is one of Hirano-jinja's symbols, printed on the paper, silk and bamboo lanterns, or Chōchin, hanging from hooks all over the grounds of the shrine. Image Credit: Wei-Te Wong (Flickr) Image Date: 04/10/2014

Hirano-jinja, Kyoto, Japan

Apr 15 2017

Sakura Zensen usually arrives in Kyoto and the rest of southern Honshū at the end of March or the beginning of April and Hirano-jinja is one of the imperial city's most famous and popular spots for as Hanami cherry blossom picnics and parties. Hirano-jinja was founded in the year 794 by Kazan-tennō, 65th emperor of Japan, and the shrine has hosted a cherry blossom festival known as Ōka Matsuri every year since 985. Kyoto's oldest festival, Ōka Matsuri is held on the second Sunday in April, beginning with a morning cherry blossom ceremony which starts on the shrine's Sandō path before moving on to Emperor Kazan's tomb. Locals dress in traditional Japanese Samurai, Geisha and imperial era costumes for Ōka Matsuri and the festival also sees people scribbling wishes on cherry blossom-themed O-mikuji fortune papers and buying Omamori good luck talisman. Image Credit: DiscoverKyoto Image Date: 04/12/2015

Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, Japan

Apr 20 2017

264 kilometres northwest of Kyoto, the city of Takayama in Gifu Prefecture in Honshū's central Chūbu region sits at the heart of the Japanese Alps and during Sakura season every year, Takayama's perfectly preserved and pristine old town of Sanmachi Suji, sees one of Japan's most photogenic events framing another. When the snow starts to melt on the Japanese Alps surrounding Takayama, it signifies the beginning of spring and the town throws itself into anticipation for the imminent arrival of the cherry blossoms and begins preparing for one of the most spellbinding celebrations in the whole of Japan. Takayama Matsuri is twice-yearly festival held in every spring and autumn, with the spring celebration coinciding with Takayama's cherry blossoms in full bloom and focused on Hie-jinja shrine in the south of town, while the autumn celebration is centred on Hachiman-jinja shrine in Takayama's north. Image Date: 04/15/2013

Takayama, Gifu Prefecture, Japan

Apr 21 2017

Early in the afternoon of the first day of the spring festival, a portable Shinto shrine known as a Mikoshi departs Hie-jinja shrine before being taken to a specially-designated Otabisho, or resting place, and left overnight before returning to Hie-jinja the next afternoon. Takayama is also historically famed for its master wood craftsmen and during the spring festival, three wooden floats known as Yatai are pulled the streets of Sanmachi Suji Old Town. Also featuring a performance by Karakuri puppets, the main float is known as Ryujin-tai, which is dedicated to the dragon god of the ocean, and two other Yatai floats are named Shakyo-tai and Sanba-so. The floats also leave the town's Nakabashi Bridge at 6:30pm on the first day of Takayama Matsuri before being paraded through the streets in a nighttime festival known as Yomatsuri. Image Date: 04/15/2013

Matsumoto-jō, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

Apr 23 2017

Japan's classic Shōgun-era castles are rightly acclaimed as some of the most awe-inspiring historical landmarks on the planet and among these Japanese national icons are Himeji-jō in Hyōgo Prefecture, Ōsaka-jō and Kumamoto-jō on the island of Kyūshū. Matsumoto is the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture and its castle is one of only four across Japan to be officially designated by the cultural ministry as a Kokuhō, or 'National Treasure'. Famed for the unique and alternating black and white layers of wood and stone in its Tenshukaku, or main keep building, Matsumoto-jō is often referred to as Karasu-jō, or 'Crow Castle', and the building as seen today dates back to 1594, when its construction was completed by the Ishikawa Samurai clan. Image Date: 04/08/2013

Matsumoto-jō, Nagano Prefecture, Japan

Apr 24 2017

Matsumoto is surrounded by Japan's Northern Alps and when Sakura season arrives, usually in the first week of April, images of the city's iconic castle surrounded by powder pink cherry blossoms and framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Hida Sanmyaku Mountains are some of the most mind-blowing and photogenic. No fewer than three hundred Yoshino cherry trees are planted around the park, the grounds and the moat of Matsumoto-jō and the castle also stages its own Sakura festival, featuring classical Japanese Gagaku music as Hanami parties and picnics take place. After dark during cherry blossom season, Otsukimi, or 'Moon Views', are held during which a local saying has it that the nights are so clear that three moons appear at Matsumoto-jō, one in the sky, another in the water of the castle moat and a third moon in guests' saké cups. Image Date: 04/04/2013

Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

Apr 26 2017

Just over one hundred kilometres west of Tokyo, the town of Fujiyoshida dates back to 1951 when it was built at the base of Japan's legendary Mount Fuji and nestled on top of the skeletal remnants of lava flows forged after the mountain's volcano erupted in 1707. Shadowing the northern part of Fujiyoshida from the side of Arakurayama mountain, Arakura Sengen Shrine is one of over 1300 Shinto shrines scattered across Yamanashi and Shizuoka Prefectures which are collectively known as Sengen-jinja. All Sengen-jinja are located within view of Mount Fuji and each one is devoted the Kami, or Shinto guardian spirits, of Japanese volcanoes. Image Credit: Kosu Image Date: 04/21/2015

Fujiyoshida, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan

Apr 27 2017

As far as mind-boggling Japanese vistas go, gazing out towards Mount Fuji when the cherry blossoms bloom around Arakura Sengen Shrine's five-storey Chureito Pagoda needs no introduction and the scene arguably tops the view of Mount Fuji through the shrine's vermilion-lacquered Torii gate. The scene is one of the most sought-after shots of any location on the planet and Chereito Pagoda is situated at the top of a set of four hundred steps which rise up from the main part of Arakura Sengen Shrine. The pagoda was built in 1963 as a peace memorial and when the cherry blossoms burst into colour in this part of Yamanashi Prefecture in April every year, lucky visitors are treated to a scene showcasing two Japanese natural megastars, Sakura Zensen and Mount Fuji. Image Date: 04/15/2016

Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan

Apr 29 2017

Tokyo's Ueno Kōen became one of Japan's first public parks when it was established by the Daijō-kan imperial state council in 1873. Previously, Ueno Park was part of the grounds of Kan'ei-ji Buddhist temple which had the dubious honour of facing north, a position considered unlucky in Japanese geomancy as evil ghosts and demons were said to come from the same direction. After it was officially established, the park quickly became one of Tokyo's best-known and most popular Sakura viewing spots. In 1859, Ueno Park as well as Shinobazu no Ike, a pond in the southwest of the park, was featured as a prominent Tokyo cherry blossom spot in 'Meisho Edo Hyakkei'. a serialised collection of one hundred woodblock prints created by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige. Image Date: 04/26/1859

Ueno Park, Tokyo, Japan

Apr 30 2017

Today, Ueno Park is one of Tokyo's most popular and heavily-visited spots for cherry blossom viewing and the blue tarpaulin laid down by the Japanese capital's younger generations as they throw notoriously rowdy and intoxicating Hanami parties have become almost infamous. In addition to a handful of temples, a zoo, a baseball field and a Tōshō-gū, a Shinto shrine built in honour of Japan's very first Shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, Ueno Park is home to a staggering 8000-plus tress, roughly a quarter of which are either Yoshino, Japanese or Taiwan cherry trees. When Sakura season hits Tokyo, Ueno Park is also one of the most popular places for Gaijin, or 'Foreigners', to get an authentic experience of one of Japan's most revered customs. Image Date: 04/02/2016

Yanaka Cemetery, Tokyo, Japan

May 2 2017

Tokyo boasts hundreds if not thousands of Sakura viewing spots and ten minutes north of Ueno Park in the Japanese capital's Taitō ward, one of the more humbling ways to experience the blooming cherry blossoms can be found among the Shinto tombstones and grave markers of Yanaka Cemetery. After the Meiji Restoration brought imperial rule back to Japan in 1868, the government pursued a policy known as Shinbutsu Bunri which drove a wedge between Shinto and Japanese Buddhism. As graveyards and cemeteries were mostly confined to Buddhist temples, one of the largely overlooked and grim effects of this policy was that followers of Shinto no longer had a place to bury their loved ones after death and the government acted swiftly by opening public burial grounds to solve the problem, including Yanaka Cemetery. Image Date: 04/04/2015

Yanaka Cemetery, Tokyo, Japan

May 3 2017

Japan's last Shōgun Tokugawa Yoshinobu and famous author Yukio Mishima are among those interred at Yanaka Cemetery which also houses hundreds of Yoshino cherry trees, so many that the street running through it is often referred to as 'Sakura-dori', or 'Cherry Blossom Avenue. During Sakura season, some Tokyoites set up Hanami picnics and parties around the headstones and grave markers of their deceased relatives and loved ones, often leaving behind cans of beer or Sakura-flavoured chocolate or candy as gifts to help the ghosts and spirits celebrate cherry blossom season. On blustery spring days fallen Sakura petals are occasionally whipped up into miniature pink twisters and hurricanes by the wind swirling around the maze of headstones, in a phenomena sensationally known as Senpū Sakura, or 'Sakura Whirlwind'. Image Date: 04/04/2015

Kakunodate, Akita Prefecture, Japan

May 5 2017

590 kilometres from Tokyo in far-northern Honshū's Akita Prefecture, the tiny former castle town of Kakunodate is famous for its storied historical connection to two internationally recognised icons of Japan, the nation's legendary Samurai warriors and its revered cherry blossoms. Acknowledging its Edo-era heritage, Kakunodate is sometimes referred to as Michinoku no sho-Kyōto, or 'Little Kyoto', and the town dates back to 1620 when it was ruled over by the Satake Samurai clan. Roughly ten minutes northwest from Kakunodate Station, the town's warrior past is immaculately showcased by the time-frozen 'Bukeyashiki' Samurai residences lining the main drag of Uchimachi Old Town, one of Japan's most perfectly preserved Samurai's districts. Image Date: 04/01/2013

Kakunodate, Akita Prefecture, Japan

May 6 2017

The annual Sakura front usually arrives in Kakunodate in mid-to-late April and one of its most photographed images is that of the milky pink cherry blossoms as they slump over the black sloped roofs of Uchimachi Old Town's Samurai residences. Even the origin of Kakunodate's cherry trees is a colourful one and the story goes that when the town was under the control of the Satake clan, highly-prized and highly expensive Kikū-Shidare weeping cherry trees were shipped in from Kyoto, nearly 900 kilometres away, by Samurai households looking to outdo each other in a game of one-upmanship to see which family could cultivate the most pristine and tranquil Zen Buddhist gardens. Locals also say that a handful of the cherry trees seen in Kakunodate today are the very same trees brought in from Kyoto during the town's Samurai days. Image Date: 04/20/2006

Goryōkaku, Hakodate, Japan

May 8 2017

In the far south of Hokkaidō, a curious shape is imprinted into the landscape of Hakodate and the mercurial landmark is unquestionably the city's most famous feature. In 1855, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last ever Japanese Shōgun, ordered the construction of Goryōkaku, a star-shaped fort in Hakodate to protect the Tsugaru Strait separating Hokkaidō and Honshū. Goryōkaku saw action during the Boshin 'Earth Dragon' War which brought the Tokugawa Shōgunate to an end in 1869 and the fort is even more striking when viewed from its on-site observation tower. In the depths of Hokkaidō's winter, Goryōkaku becomes a snow-dusted white star before the trees planted around it revert to their usual green colour in late spring, summer and autumn. Image Date: 02/14/2011

Goryōkaku, Hakodate, Japan

May 9 2017

When Sakura season hits Hakodate and begins moving north through Hokkaidō, Goryōkaku becomes a powder pink star as the blossoms of the more than one thousand Yoshino cherry trees lining the edges of its similarly star-shaped moat burst into mind-bogglingly colourful bloom. The old fort's unique star shape combined with its Sakura make Goryōkaku arguably the most popular Hanami spots in the whole of Hokkaidō. On every night during Hakodate's Sakura season, usually from the end of April until the middle of May, four hundred Chōchin, traditional Japanese bamboo and paper spiral lanterns, are lit along Goryōkaku's star-etched pathways providing a dream-like setting for cherry blossom-viewing picnics and parties. Image Credit: VacationNiseko Image Date: 05/04/2014

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