The transition from winter to summer is just beginning, and that means something magical is about to arrive: cherry-blossom season. As winter loosens its grip, delicate pastel petals push their way out of gnarled sakura-tree branches — an early indicator of the warmth that will slowly envelop the archipelago.
This process, and its surreal pink results, does something to people in Japan that I love, but have difficulty explaining. Strict salarymen become party animals, and the most bashful guy in the office loosens his tie to belt out a sing-along under flurries of flowers. The weather still echoes winter’s chill, but the hearts and minds of the Japanese populace have begun to thaw. I can only describe it as something of a spiritual spring break.
Here’s where the hanami parties come in. While “hanami” simply means “flower viewing” in Japanese, these gatherings comprise what has become my favorite time of the year. So start prepping your tarp and picnic supplies and pick a place that best suits your family’s tastes. Following are a few spots in Tokyo that should be on your radar.
Yoyogi Park: This is one of my all-time favorite hanami settings, but to say that it’s “kid-friendly” is a stretch. Sure, there are beautiful trees and there’s a unique celebratory vibe, but you’ll also find smashed bottles, belligerent crows and hordes of drunken college kids. Yet despite all this, there is something about this park — possibly the youthful energy I feel here — that keeps me coming back every season. People really go all-out here: Costumes are donned, banquets are prepared and karaoke is belted out with exceptional fervor. People are friendly and welcoming of children, but frequently so inebriated that they don’t notice their lit cigarette inches from your toddler’s face, so beware. The best place for families is right behind the fountains near the center of the park. Not much blossom cover, but plenty of space for young ones to run around without fear of colliding with revelers. Nearest stations: Harajuku, Meiji-Jingumae, Yoyogi Koen.
Arisugawa Park: Located minutes from Hiroo Station, this park isn’t full of cherry blossoms, but has some very beautiful spots. There’s a nice playground for younger ones near the in-park library, and the high-end supermarket National Azabu is right across the street for any of your swanky picnic needs (and imported groceries). For older kids, Arisugawa Park is lush and hilly, with plenty of nooks and crannies worthy of an epic hide-and-seek competition. Expect lots of stone steps, so those with strollers might want to use the sidewalk around the perimeter, and younger kids should be careful on the inclines.
Ueno Park: This is the 800-pound gorilla of Tokyo hanami parties, but I can only recommend staying away. I have been with kids several times over the last decade and have always wanted to leave immediately. If there are kid-friendly spots, I’d like to know them, because all I’ve seen under the trees here is concrete and a wall of nearly immobile drunken bodies. Claustrophobics beware. Nearest stations: Ueno, Ueno Kachimachi, Uguisudani.
Aoyama Cemetery: Here you will find some of the most striking and photogenic locations of the season, but keep in mind that this is a graveyard, so an extra level of respect and decorum should be considered. This can be a beautiful spot with babies and toddlers who can be contained easily, but not a place where kids should run wild. Try a walk-through. Nearest stations: Gaienmae, Aoyama-Itchome.
Nakameguro River: Borderline magical after dusk, this is an ideal place for a stroll, but not recommended for an all-afternoon affair. The blossoms are mostly on the main thoroughfare, which gives kids very little room to maneuver. But with all the riverside restaurants setting up stalls along the sidewalk, this can be a great place to walk, snack and marvel at the trees lit up after dark. Nearest station: Nakameguro.
Kasai Rinkai Park: While not known for its sakura, Kasai Rinkai Park has its share, and more than enough space for kids as well. It also doesn’t fill up as fast, so the day can be a much more casual affair compared with most places in the city. Bring a kite, as the wind and open fields here make it an ideal place for flying. Nearest station: Kasai Rinkai Koen.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden: My top pick for families, hanami season or otherwise, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden provides beautiful trees and plenty of space. The park is tenaciously attended to (no pigeon poop and broken glass here), and the lawns appear pristine enough that I usually find a ground cloth optional. If the temperature takes a dip, step into the recently renovated greenhouse to warm up. In all categories, Shinjuku Gyoen wins by a mile, including the fact that its hanami season lasts even longer because it also has yaezakura, which usually bloom around two weeks after other cherry-blossom varieties. There are, however, a few tradeoffs: the park closes at 4 p.m. (gates shut 30 minutes later), and alcohol is prohibited. Bags are frequently checked at the gates, but I have witnessed authorities turn a blind eye to a bottle of wine or sake. Nearest stations: Shinjuku Gyoenmae, Shinjuku, Shinjuku Sanchome, Sendagaya.
Got a favorite hanami spot? Let us know about it.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5