April is a magical time in Tokyo. The weather is cool, the light is soft and if you’re lucky, heaving winds won’t knock all your cherry blossoms from the branches in the first day.
Cherry Blossom Festival (Hanami) varies from year to year—this year the first blooms will pop this week, with predicted full bloom around 5 April. Japan goes mental over blossoms—cherry, pear, apple—you won’t find a suburb in Tokyo that doesn’t have a thicket of blossom trees somewhere.
Even if gawking at flowers is not your thing, the festival itself has lots to offer. It’s a fine excuse to people-watch, join the worshipping crowds at temples and shrines, eat yatai (temporary stall) food and down chuhai, sake and beer in the mellow sun, surrounded by public displays of joy—whatever rocks your gondola. Tokyo’s drinking laws are much more lax than Australia’s (I may or may not have been in the habit of sinking a Kirin or two on the train home from work at one time) and imbibing in public parks is accepted, if not celebrated. If you start to get rowdy, though, the Japanese Police will be all over you like a meningococcal rash. Pop-up yatai stalls in side streets, parks and at shrines and temples complete the picture.
Even if the meteorological gods aren’t kind to you and it pours during Cherry Blossom Festival, the city is still a colourful whirlwind. It’s difficult to convince any Japanese that these blossoms, rain-laden and all, are not worth celebrating.
For visitors to Japan, Hanami is the most killer time to visit (followed closely by Momijigari—Autumn Leaves Dropping Season), although accommodation is at a premium. Get organised. Be prepared for crowds. And for God’s sake, don’t forget your camera.