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Top cherry blossom spots in Tokyo for hanami

They might be a bit late this year, but they will come: Japan's famous cherry blossoms will probably perform in Tokyo from 1 to 10 April. Here’s my personal list of best cherry blossom spots in Tokyo, compiled after many years of chasing pink candy floss. I've divided my list into two: best hanami spots and best viewing spots.

Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Hanami () means means cherry blossom viewing party, i.e. picnic under the trees, i.e. Blotto Blossom Bacchanal. Before I experienced my first hanami in Tokyo, I'd read about it in classic Japanese literature, which gave me a slightly distorted idea about this centuries-old custom. It's true that hanami has been celebrated for more than a thousand years; that it's been immortalized in beautiful lyrical poetry; and that it can be a paean to refined aesthetics, a solitary moment of mono no aware (物の哀れ) when you reflect on life's brief glory.

However, it's also a perfect excuse to get sloshed, smashed, soaked, soused, sozzled, squiffy, pixilated and plastered. Drinking has always been associated with hanami, and I've read that even in the Heian period (794-1185) the court nobility held hanami poetry contests: you had to compose an instant poem when it was your turn, or else down a flask of sake.

Anyway. We start with a map that predicts the march of the cherry blossoms:

Overall top spot: Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen is one of my all-time, all-season favourite parks in Tokyo, but it gets the top spot on this particular list for providing a great hanami venue ánd ensuring spectacular viewing.

It has hundreds of trees of many different varieties, and it's so spacious that you'll never feel claustrophobic. The big central lawn provides perfect picnic spots. You have to pay an entrance fee and you're theoretically not supposed to take alcohol into the park, and that helps to control drunkenness. Dunno about you, but I want to see pink blossoms, not red-faced men making fools of themselves.

My only personal complaint is that most of the trees are on the lawn, not next to water, and I love to see reflections in water.

Advantage: Big (58 hectares, 1500 cherry trees), family-friendly, easy access via several stations. Disadvantage: You have to pay ¥200. C'mon, it won't kill you. That's the price of one chūhai.

Access: Shinjuku Station, Shinjukugyoenmae Station, Sendagaya Station, etc.

Hanami: Inokashira Park in Kichijōji

Strictly speaking Kichijōji is not part of central Tokyo itself – it's not situated in one of the city's 23 special wards, but in neighbouring Musashino City – but it takes only half an hour to get there from central Tokyo if you take an express train on the Chūō Line. Kichijōji is consistently rated as one of the best residential areas in/near Tokyo. It's quite arty-farty, which means men sport funky hats and facial hair, women's skirts are 1 m longer than in central Tokyo and everybody favours bright colours that an inner-city person wouldn't be seen dead in. It's a lovely area and it would cause no pain whatsoever to live there, if I weren't so attached to my shitamachi.

Inokashira Park is the perfect hanami spot, with lots of space under the trees and cute swan boats on the pond (which happens to be the premier source of the Kanda River). It does get very crowded, though, so if your main purpose is looking rather than partying, be there by 9 am and disappear before noon.

Advantage: Free. Stunning scenery with beautiful reflections in the pond. Family-friendly. Quirky shops and trendy restaurants nearby. Disadvantage: Claustrophobia guaranteed.

Access: Kichijōji Station on the Chūō Line.

Hanami: Ōmiya Kōen

Ōmiya Kōen is a huge park park of almost 70 hectares just north of Hikawa Jinja in Ōmiya, Saitama. OK, it’s not in Tokyo, but it's only half an hour from Ueno.

Advantage: It's regarded as one of the 100 best locations for cherry blossoms in Japan, and it's really worth a trip. It's a down-to-earth, family-friendly, no-frills-or-fuss park with hundreds of trees and dozens of food stalls. Disadvantage: Nothing major. It gets a bit crowded, but not nearly as bad as the central Tokyo spots.

Access: It's easily accessible via Ōmiya Station (Keihin-Tōhoku Line or Takasaki Line from Ueno Station) as well as Kita-Ōmiya Station and Ōmiya Kōen Station (on the Tōbu Noda Line from Ōmiya Station).

Hanami: Asukayama Kōen

Asukayama Kōen in Kita-ku was created in the early 18th century by shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune for the express purpose of providing a good hanami spot for the masses. It became a general-purpose park in 1873, but it still has 650 cherry trees and it's still a great place to visit.

Advantage: Free, and it has a nice "local" feel. Disadvantage: It gets a bit gloomy under the trees.

Access: It's next to Ōji Station on the Keihin-Tōhoku Line. 

Honourable mention: Ueno Park

Ueno Park is probably the most famous hanami spot in Tokyo, and I go there every year because, well, it's in the shitamachi. I never stay long. I usually flee to Shinobazu Pond next to Ueno Park, because it's marginally less crowded and you can see the trees' reflections in the pond.

I have mixed feelings about cherry blossom season in the park itself. The central avenue is truly spectacular, but let's be blunt: this is where most visitors go mainly to get drunk, and the only time they actually see the blossoms is when they lift their chins to drain the last drops of beer from the can. I guess I have to accept that this world has more gluttons than philocalists, and I shouldn't be an uptight spoilsport. Drink, says I, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

Advantage: It's in the shitamachi. What other reason do you need? Disadvantage: It's chaos. Or is that a plus point?

Access: Get off at Ueno Station and follow everybody else.

I usually flee from Ueno Park's crowds and come to Shinobazu Pond, where it's a fraction quieter.

To be continued

Originally I wanted to include my recommendations for best viewing (looking, not partying) spots in this post, too, but it's already very long. I'll stop here, and do another post that focuses on spots where you can simply enjoy the blossoms' beauty. Watch this space ...

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