With an ephemeral canopy of pink sweeping Japan, the JT’s food writers know the perfect spots to dine with an eyeful of sakura (cherry blossom) — or just the right sake to sip as you picnic under the petals.
When it comes to blossom viewing, nowhere in Tokyo does it better or with greater abandon than Ueno Park. And no restaurant is better placed to observe those evanescent petals than Innsyoutei, slap in the middle of the park. The traditional timber architecture is a century old, but Innsyoutei’s dining rooms are fitted with huge modern picture windows that give perfect views onto the sakura boughs. On the elevated first floor you sit at a long counter; on the floor above, it is table seating, but with even wider vistas. There is also a small terrace where lunch is served al fresco when conditions are clement. During the hanami (flower-viewing) season, the menu is pared down — bentō boxed lunches (¥3,500 and ¥5,000) at lunchtime; and simple kaiseki multicourse meals (from ¥7,000) at dinner — and there’s a two-hour limit for everyone. (Robbie Swinnerton)
(03) 3821-8126; www.innsyoutei.jp
There are just two ways to do hanami properly: either highbrow chic or lowbrow Bacchanalia. Kyoto of course lends itself to the former, and a perfect place to satisfy your aesthetic and gourmand urges is the wonderful Shoraian in Arashiyama. The Heian Period (794-1185) glitterati and literati would come to the leafy western district to write poetry and ponder the transience of this mortal life as they watched the cherry petals float down the Oigawa River toward oceanic oblivion. Follow in their august footsteps at this beautiful tofu-specialist restaurant. The former private residence owned by and exhibiting the work of master Zen calligrapher Fuyoh Kobayashi is a real gem. Her artwork is powerful and intense, but it is the silky, gentle sophistication of the cuisine and the view of the blossoms across that oh-so-noble river that will stay in your memory. Lunch courses from ¥3,800; evening from ¥6,000. (John Ashburne)
Picture this: By the entrance to an ancient Zen temple, a small pond ringed by trees, its surface still except when white egrets alight. Against a backdrop of dark evergreens, two gnarled cherry trees spread pristine white blossom, their petals dropping onto the serene water below. Such is the view from the veranda at En in Kita-Kamakura, less than an hour south of Tokyo by train but far removed from the relentless hustle of the city. The cuisine at En makes a perfect match for this mood of simple, relaxed, rustic refinement. The set-menu meals (from ¥3,675 at lunch; from ¥5,250 at dinner) include a succession of courses based around seasonal seafood and vegetables, most of it sourced locally. As a certain well-known gourmet guidebook would say, En is definitely worth a detour — especially in sakura season. (R.S.)
(0467) 23-6231; www.kitakamakura-en.com
R-J Cafe, Osaka
If you dig your cherry-blossom viewing with ubercool jazz, stuffed toy penguins, “USA antique” freezers and photographic paraphernalia that ranges from ancient Polaroid machines to state-of-the-art digital hardware, this chilled-out cafe-bar is the place for you. Youthful artists, nostalgia fans and trendy locals congregate at this funky spot across the Okawa River from Keihan Temmabashi Station. It’s one of those joints where most of the decor is up for sale. Nachos, tacos and pizza are the edible staples on offer here, starting at ¥900 for lunch. R-J’s location in front of Minami Tenma Park is absolutely perfect for hanami, though you might want to get there early to bag the window seats. Genial owner Yoshihiro Komori presides. (J.A.)
Le Baerenthal, Sapporo
Cherry blossoms arrive in Hokkaido like a fashionably late diva to an already gorgeous Sapporo ball. The lingering snow melts in April as riotous color explodes from crocuses, daffodils and lilacs, and by early May when the cherry blossoms finally make their grand entrance, Sapporo overflows in flowers. The best park for hanami is Maruyama Park off the Tozai Line. The ban on outside barbecues is lifted only during cherry-viewing season, and the park abounds with some 1,700 trees framed by other gorgeous blooms. Bordering the park lies the elegant Le Baerenthal, a French restaurant boasting seasonal Hokkaido ingredients. The building itself resembles a French chalet, and garden seating is available for coffee and dessert. The park’s array of cherry blossoms are visible through classic French windows and lunch courses start at ¥2,940. (Kris Kosaka)
Bottles for blossoms — what to drink at hanami
The appearance of shiboritate nama shinshu (unpasteurized, just-pressed newly released sake), with its green aromas and typically vibrant acidity, is one of the first signs that spring has sprung, and several breweries create limited-edition varieties for the hanami season. Raifuku Sakura Kobo Junmai Nama Genshu, made with cherry-blossom yeast, comes in a pink bottle with a floral label. The sake is fresh and fruity, with scents of banana and mint, a ricey sweetness and a dry finish (available at Hasegawa Saketen: www.hasegawasaketen.com).
Fukucho Hakubi Junmai Ginjo Orikarami Nama Genshu can add a touch of celebratory sparkle to your picnic. This lightly cloudy, bubbly brew has fruity flavors with hints of jasmine and goes well with a variety of dishes; it is available online at ow.ly/jrTAq .
For something a little different, try Kozaemon Junmai Umeshu, a sake-based plum liqueur with intense fruit flavor and firm acidity. Available at Isetan department stores. (Melinda Joe)