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Pretty Petals

A fleeting beauty, a cherished moment—Japan’s cherry blossoms season this year surprised the locals and tourists alike who came in droves to participate in springtime’s greatest celebration.

Words & Photography: Matthew Mok

Many who made plans to visit Tokyo in April for the annual hanami parties (traditional Japanese flower viewing festival) may be caught off guard by the early blooms of cherry trees, as early as mid-March. Those in the capital city usually open their first buds end March and reach full bloom within a week to ten days.  

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White and pink cherry blossoms at Yokohama Bay

     I was fortunate to touch down on the Land of the Rising Sun late March to witness the flocking of the masses, from young to old, to the many hanami hotspots in Tokyo and beyond. First stop, a day trip out of Tokyo to Port of Yokohama, the major commercial hub of Greater Tokyo Area.

     After a quick 30-min train ride from Tokyo central and a short boat ride away, Yokohama’s Sakura Street at CBD area impressed with lines of cherry trees at full bloom. The first time I set my eyes upon the beautiful 5-petal Somei Yoshino variety up-close, reality hit me that I was finally in Japan!

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Yokohama’s Sakura Street: Nature’s best works co-exist with men’s marvels

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“Look at me, ain’t I pretty?” White cherry blossoms at their best

     Everyone was buzzing around minding their usual business while some folks were seen relaxing and enjoying the cool spring climate with a stroll or two. It was a perfect day to appreciate nature’s masterpieces.

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     Soon, I was looking forward to more open spaces and natural settings to enjoy the sakura, and my prayers were answered when I visited Sankeien Garden after a sumptuous Dim Sum lunch in Chinatown.

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At just 500 yen for entrance, Yokohama Sankeien Garden’s tranquil setting provides a dreamy landscape

     Created by Sankei Hara, a Yokohama businessman who had built his fortune through his silk trade, Sankeien Garden is a lush green space facing the Tokyo Bay that took 20 years to complete! It provides picturesque scenery that changes according to season, so visitors were treated to a dazzling showcase of cherry blossoms during spring, and boy, they surely didn’t disappoint!

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     Sankei, who was also known for his relationships with artists and literary figures, intended his garden to serve as a place to develop modern Japanese culture, including art, literature and Chanoyu (tea ceremony ritual). I even managed to discover the art of the Japanese tea ceremony amidst a brief walk-through at the Sankei Memorial that houses the founder’s contribution to Yokohama’s recovery efforts following the Great Kanto Earthquake, among many others.  

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Take a break, have a Sakura-flavoured Kit Kat chocolate

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The three-storey pagoda of Old Tomyoji built about 550 years ago is one of the main landmarks of Sankeien Garden

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Traditional Japanese villas

     The best moment in Sankeien Garden for me was watching newly-weds in the midst of shooting their wedding photographs – immaculately dressed in traditional Japanese wedding attire that is said to be very sacred and rare.

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Love blossoms under the cherry blossoms

     In the midst of the calmness, a strong gush of chilly wind created a blizzard of white petals raining down from the branches – a more beautiful and whimsical version of snow falling. I could almost hear the silent whispers amongst the cherry blossom trees, an inaudible secret conversation only for the ears of forest natives.

     Unlike Sankeien Garden’s serene and quiet ambiance, Tokyo’s Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was packed with merrymakers by lunch hour when I visited the 3 distinctive gardens of English, French and Japanese styles the following day.

      Friends and families came early equipped with their picnic mats and bento sets (no alcohol allowed though) to secure the best spots to admire the blossoming beauties. In fact, a local even told me that many companies send their new hires and junior staff to hanami spots first thing in the morning to secure a good place for after-office parties! Imagine the cold yet sunny weather they had to endure – RESPECT! 

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Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden—one of the top popular places in Tokyo for hanami parties

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Remember to come early to secure your spots if you are planning your own celebration during the next hanami season!

     What I regretted most during my maiden trip to Japan was not being able to afford much time to pause and soak in the surrounding beauty, and indulge in the fun picnics just like the locals. To my envy, they seemed to have enjoyed their time thoroughly, bonding with loved ones and making new friends — a cherished moment forever to many. Japan’s hanami parties should be experienced at least once in a lifetime by anyone, and with that in mind, I vow to return next year armed with a picnic basket in tow!  

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