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Go west to enjoy a family hanami party

by Jason Jenkins

At last, winter’s grip is loosening and spring in Japan is on its way. Soon cherry blossoms will explode across the archipelago, and parks around the country will be full of smiles and picnic tarps. That’s right: it’s hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) season again — my favorite time of the year.

Like a pink wave rolling north with the warmer winds, hanami season is a special time in Japan. It’s a time to eat, drink and be merry as the tender pink petals herald a change of season. Locals and those from further afield flock to nearby sakura (cherry blossom) trees to celebrate the end of winter and the fun times to come. Hanami parties are often known for drinking and revelry, but these gatherings are also quite child-friendly. They’re a great excuse to get out of the house and start enjoying the great outdoors once again.

A few years ago, I wrote in these pages about some of the best hanami spots for families in Tokyo. Those are still valid and worth a look if you’re planning a picnic in the metropolis. But the capital is not the only place, or the best, to have a hanami. There are millions of sakura trees in Japan: from the islands of Okinawa to the northern reaches of Hokkaido.

Locals from every region of the country have their favorite spots to enjoy the blossoms. We’ll run though just a few family favorite west of the Kanto region.

In Kyoto, Maruyama Park is one of the most popular places to watch the pink petals fall. One reason is that if you keep partying well past dusk, you will find some of the trees are lit up at night. That includes a large and elegant shidare zakura (weeping cherry blossom tree). You’ll also find plenty of food options here, as well. Kyoto also offers temples, such as Kodaiji and Kiyomizudera, which are spectacular during the season, although finding a place to sit can be a challenge. We enjoyed our time in the west of Kyoto, near the river in Arashiyama.

Not far from Kyoto is the ancient city of Nara, where Nara Park has its share of cherry blossoms. Kids may love this park more for the deer that roam around freely here. Older kids may wander off to explore, giving parents that extra moment for a quiet drink alone. That said, remember that the park deer are relatively unafraid of humans. They will not hesitate to try and nibble at of your picnic supplies.

Older kids may also consider a hike on the mountainside of Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture. Considered one of the country’s best hanami locations, Mount Yoshino is home to more than 30,000 sakura trees. There is space for everyone here, and the hike from top to bottom comes highly recommended. Because of the differing altitudes and temperatures, visitors can view different seasonal stages of the blossoms.

Osaka has some great places for a family hanami. Kema Sakuranomiya Park is a riverside green space with close to 5,000 sakura trees. Easily one of my favorite spots in Osaka for families, there is enough space to run around and a constant refreshing breeze from the water. Also, right across the river is the Japan Mint Museum, where more than 100 species of sakura trees bloom in the institution’s garden. The garden is open to the public for a limited time in April each year, so it’s worth calling them to find out more. Walk 20 minutes south of the museum and you enter the grounds of Osaka Castle, which makes for one of the city’s most photogenic cherry blossom spots.

Moving west, you’ll find lots of great hanami spots in Kobe. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, Egeyama Park has a path lined with 1,400 cherry trees. Half an hour west is Sumaura Park. Take the short ropeway up the mountainside and you’ll find yourself in a park boasting over 3,000 trees.

In Hiroshima Prefecture, many recommend visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park for a stroll under the blossoms. The gravity of the monument, however, is too important to consider partying there. Instead, we head to the 450 trees of Hiroshima Castle or to the 1,300 trees of Miyajima Island.

Takato Castle Site Park in Nagano Prefecture is at the top of our family’s hanami bucket list. Very little of the original castle remains, but we’ve heard that the blossoms are incredibly dense and colorful, that it’s worth going for that alone. As you can see, I could write four more columns solely on hanami locations across Tokyo’s four bordering prefectures. Wherever you put down your picnic basket, Japan is at her best when she’s blooming.

Spring blooms across Japan

For more information on the sites mentions in this article, the Japan National Tourist Organization at www.jnto.go.jp offers guides to all areas in Japan in many languages. For more English information, visit the sites below.

Nara: www.visitnara.jp
Mount Yoshino: www.yoshinoyama-sakura.jp/english
Kema Sakuranomiya Park: bit.ly/sakuranomiya
Japan Mint Museum: bit.ly/japanmintmuseum
Osaka: osaka-info.jp/en
Sumaura Park: bit.ly/sumaurapark
Hiroshima: visithiroshima.net
Miyajima Island: bit.ly/miyajimapk
Takato Castle: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/spot/gardens/takato-castle-site-park.html