When spring arrives in Japan, the whole country celebrates, charting the movement of blossom across the islands and generating a massive party spirit. Following hot on the heels of the spring equinox, the arrival of spring is properly heralded by the pink and white blossoms which sweep across the country. In the capital, Tokyo, skyscrapers jostle for space with parks and temples, and everywhere a haze of pink begins to emerge, from mid-March onwards.
Initially individual trees stand resplendent among the greenery, close by whole avenues dripping with blossom which falls like confetti onto the streets.
Spring is obviously a time for more than just blossom, and the budding trees provide an attractive home for a whole range of wildlife too. Birdsong echoes all around you, as birds congregate among the laden branches.
What look like wizened old trees with no life left in them, and certainly no leaves to suggest life, burst forth with the most delicate blossoms. Cherry trees are beautiful, surprising, and potentially huge and ancient.
While full bloom is impressive and gorgeous, there is also something exciting about the weeks running up to it. As each tree, each branch slowly bursts into blossom you can watch the colour grow every day, the promise of colour tantalisingly close.
Not all the blossoms are the traditional pink either, but the trees offer a riot of shades and densities of colour. While over a hundred different varieties of cherry tree predominate, spring also sees the blooming of lots of other species too, and any park or even street side can offer a splendid array of flowers to gaze on.
The blossoms to come out across the whole city, but of course the greatest density will come in the formal parks. There are lots of these, and one of the largest is Ueno Park, close to the city centre.
The tree lined avenues are so tempting for revellers that as peak blossom and the full festival approach, the whole park transforms into a sakura centre. A kind of fairground in the centre offers entertainment, while individual party pitches are marked out on the ground, where people can have a picnic and enjoy the area. Organised bins, banners, cardboard to sit on, this is mass partying on an organised, huge scale. Hanami (cherry blossom picnic parties) are an important occasion for people to let their hair down and relax with friends.
Sakura so takes over the national consciousness that it seems to permeate all aspects of life in this season. The real blossoms are so unpredictable in their timings that fake wreaths adorn temple precincts, and whole fake trees can even be found.
If necessary, a fake one will do
The blossoms characterise an embrace of spring, of festivals of new life. Beyond the reality of the beautiful blossoms, sakura celebrations are evident everywhere. The shops have themed displays; pink flowery nets provide canopies over displays of things to help you party. Even sakura flavoured Kit-Kats make an appearance. The metro trains carry adverts of places to go and parties to attend. Sakura-watching spots are marked out around the city.
Sakura merchandise in shops
It's impossible to predict precisely when the blossoms will bloom, but various calendars and predictions help people to keep an eye on the projections. One example in English is the national Japan Guide. The peak bloom in any one place will only last a couple of weeks, but the whole season lasts much longer, and each location will be magical even before the full blossom strength is reached.
Travel and hotel prices do rise in peak sakura season, but booking judiciously in advance, and compromising on being there outside the anticipated full bloom time can make a big difference to prices whilst still allowing you to enjoy the beauty that is Japan in spring. The blossoms start opening in the south of the country and work north, and will vary between town and city, so you can also plan a journey around such differences. Wander around town, laze around in the parks, and enjoy the atmosphere.