The cherry blossom is perhaps all the more beautiful because it comes with the first warm breeze of spring and seems to leave on the next, scattering its petals as it goes. Their short-lived, delicate beauty has made them a symbol of life’s transience and the onrush of white, pink and red blossoms a cause for celebration. Seeing pink is not always easy; it can be hard to predict the exact timing of the blooms. But that’s part of the beauty of the experience: to glimpse them calls for not just careful planning but also a touch of fate.
Called sakura in Japanese, cherry blossoms are exalted in the eighth century book Manyoshu (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), the oldest existing compilation of Japanese poetry. During the Heian period (794-1185), Emperor Saga began holding cherry blossom viewing parties in the imperial gardens in Kyoto. By the 16th century, the custom had spread to include all classes of citizens.
The cloak of pink starts in the south and spreads north as temperatures warm (consult this handy forecast). Fukuoka, on Japan’s most southwesterly main island of Kyushu, is one of the first places on mainland Japan to see the sakura; most flowers begin to blossom mid-March. Nishi Park looks out over 1,300 cherry trees and its observatory provides a great vantage point to admire the scene set against the crisp blue waters of Hakata Bay.
Many varieties of cherry trees grow in Nishi Park, including somei-yoshino, the most common variety in Japan, along with the wild yamazakura hill cherry and the graceful weeping higan. Another prime viewing spot is Maizuru Park surrounding Fukuoka Castle, now mostly in ruins. During the Cherry Blossom Festival, around late March this year, when the trees are illuminated at night, visitors can also enjoy festive treats sold at food stalls.
Cherry trees are common throughout the Korean peninsula, with the most spectacular blossoms found in the southern coastal city of Jinhae. Statues in Jangboksan Sculpture Park offer a striking complement to the delicate blossoms, while Jehwangsan Park offers up panoramic views.
The 5.6-kilometre stretch of Anmin Road becomes a tunnel of cherry blossoms, and the banks of Yeojwa Stream are lined with cherry trees reflected in the waters. A traditional wooden bridge and yellow canola flowers along the river add to the colourful scene. At Gyeonghwa Station, an 800-metre stretch of cherry blossoms lines the tracks. Although the station is now disused, visitors still flock to the spot each spring and send petals flying.
Jinhae is home to a major South Korean naval base and an annual 10-day Military Parade Festival in early April coincides with the arrival of cherry blossoms. The festival honours Yi Sun-shin, a 16th-century naval commander whose heroism won him fame, and has grown in scale over the years; and today performances by the naval military band are joined by K-pop concerts, fireworks and a parade.
Some botanists believe that the ancestors of today’s ornamental cherry trees came from the Himalayas near China’s Yunnan province. Numerous regions offer beautiful displays, but the city best known for its blossoms is Wuhan and, thanks in part to its blooms, Wuhan University is said to be China’s most beautiful. Founded in 1893, the university’s architecture is a blend of Western and Chinese styles, set amid rolling hills and the East Lake.
Each year in the middle of March, hundreds of thousands of visitors make their way to the school’s Luojia Hill for a panoramic view of the cherry gardens, where clusters of blossoms frame beautiful pavilions and crowds mingle under the canopy of flowers.
Although a peaceful spot today, the views reflect a tumultuous past. During the Second World War, the Japanese captured Wuhan and used the university as a base for its military operations in China. Homesick Japanese soldiers planted cherry saplings but when the war ended, the trees became a contentious issue. After the cooling of Sino-Japanese relations in the 1970s, Japan sent a gift of cherry blossom saplings to China as a sign of friendship. Some of the trees went to Wuhan, where they thrive to this day.
The city of Taichung, known as the ‘Kyoto of Formosa’ during Japanese rule, stands out for its nature reserves and mild climate year-round. One consequence of that warm weather are an early showing of cherry blossoms: the season lasts approximately from mid-February until early March.
Xinshe Cherry Blossom Trails – a street in Taichung’s Xinshe district nicknamed for its abundance of flowers – is a great place to begin your sakura viewing. It features the Taiwan cherry, which can grow up to six metres tall. Dongshi Forest Garden, in Dongshi district, offers 225 hectares of varied flowers and trees, including cedars, maples and plum trees. The East Asian and yoshino cherry trees, both native to Japan, do their part in creating a pink panorama. At the end of spring, the appearance of fireflies makes an evening stroll especially enchanting.
Further from the city centre, Wuling Farm in Heping district, has a dramatic mountainous backdrop. In spring, it really comes to life when the cherry blossom trees go into full bloom. From paths around the farm to hillside trails, they can be seen from every turn. The farm hosts an annual cherry blossom festival, and the 2019 edition continues through 27 February.
The northern province of Chiang Mai enjoys cooler temperatures than much of the country, enabling cherry blossoms to flourish, particularly in mountainous areas like the small town of Khun Chang Kian. About 30 kilometres from the city of Chiang Mai and surrounded by the picturesque Doi Suthep-Pui National Park, the town lures travellers with its wild Himalayan cherry blossom trees. Known in Thai as nang phaya sua krong, they were planted by a research centre run by the University of Chiang Mai’s department of agriculture in hopes of promoting the area. It’s paid off, as visitors flock here to admire the vibrant shades of pink blossoms and green trees against a backdrop of rolling hills.
Another scenic spot is Doi Kham Fa, inside Pha Daeng National Park and best known for being home to Thailand’s tallest limestone mountain. Cherry blossoms can also be seen along picturesque hiking trails, if you time it right. In northern Thailand, the season usually kicks off at the end of December and wraps up around early February – much earlier than in Japan or South Korea, thanks to its comparatively warmer climate.
Singapore has embraced the fervour for cherry blossoms with its annual Sakura Matsuri festival (9-31 March 2019) at Gardens by the Bay, a 101-hectare park built on reclaimed land in central Singapore. The festival faithfully recreates a classic sakura landscape with more than 20 varieties of cherry blossoms on view among Japanese torii gates and traditional red bridges. Tea ceremonies and cultural performances such as the Suzume Odori sparrow dance add to the appeal.
In recent years, there have also been some intriguing sightings of Singapore’s very own ‘cherry blossom.’ The flowering Tabebuia rosea, or rosy trumpet tree, shares a similar appearance to Japan’s sakura and has been photographed across the city including along the Central Expressway and the Singapore River.
The capital of Lam Dong province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, Da Lat was established as a resort in the 1900s by the French. While pine trees are the species traditionally associated with Da Lat, the city has its fair share of cherry blossoms – and the distinction of one of the earliest peak times in Asia. The highlands are blanketed in pink as early as January. In particular, the mai anh dao flower, a local variety, has become a symbol of the city.
Some 35,000 cherry blossom trees line Tuyen Lam Lake, five kilometres from Da Lat and the chosen location for the city’s inaugural cherry blossom festival held in 2018. The flowers are also found by Xuan Huong Lake right in the city – popular with honeymooners and dog walkers, and for Instagram-perfect selfies.
Those looking for a day-long outing should head to the Da Lat maple tourist area. Opened in 2017, the five-hectare site counts 500 cherry blossom trees, 2,000 red maple trees and other rare flora and fauna. Meanwhile, Hoa Son Dien Trang, a forest about eight kilometres from Da Lat known for its misty views and peaceful setting, has more than 4,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees.