Spring is undoubtedly a special time of year in Japan. The sun is out, the days grow gradually warmer and thousands of festive locals pour into the nation's public parks to celebrate the cherry blossom season.
Having once lived around the corner from Shimizu's Funakoshi Park, with its sweeping views over Suruga Bay towards majestic Mount Fuji, I've spent plenty of time indulging in o-hanami with my Japanese friends.
Perhaps my favourite place to do so is Tokyo's sprawling Ueno Park, where the cherry blossoms not only burst into a dazzling array of pink and white hues, but which also boasts some of the most festive sakura parties anywhere in the city.
However, you don't need to head straight for the Japanese capital to enjoy cherry blossom season, as John Asano of the popular Japan Australia blog explains.
In a nation which feverishly forecasts its sakura blooms all the way from tropical Okinawa up to the wintry climes of Hokkaido, Asano-san says that three of his favourite places to view cherry blossoms are located in the Japanese heartland of Honshu.
Hirosaki Castle Park
Hirosaki Park, which surrounds the impressive Hirosaki Castle, is home to more than 2500 cherry trees – making it one of the best spots to view the beautiful cherry blossoms in Japan. The park is like several cherry blossom spots rolled into one, with cherry blossom tunnels, petal-filled castle moats, yatai (festival food stalls) and picnic areas all present.
The level of beauty is turned up a notch at night when the cherry trees and castle buildings are illuminated. A highlight has to be renting a row boat to view the cherry blossoms from the water. You can get up close and personal with the overhanging cherry blossoms, which is a unique and memorable experience in itself.
The best time to view the cherry blossoms in Hirosaki is from late April to early May.
Osaka Castle Park
Osaka Castle is one of the most historic castles in Japan and a popular symbol of the city of Osaka. The spacious grounds of Osaka Castle are home to around 4000 cherry trees, which bring the castle and park alive with colour in the spring. Osaka Castle is regarded as one of Japan’s top cherry blossom spots and it is easy to see why with such beauty all around you.
The best place to view the cherry blossoms is from Nishinomaru Park in the castle’s western citadel. There are wide lawns perfect for a hanami party, as well as amazing views of the castle keep surrounded by cherry trees.
The best time to view the cherry blossoms in Osaka is from late March to early April.
Usuzumi Zakura, Gifu
Usuzumi Zakura is an ancient cherry tree located in the beautiful mountains of Gifu Prefecture in the heart of Japan. The cherry tree is one of the oldest in Japan at more than 1500 years old. The name Usuzumi Zakura means 'pale grey cherry blossom' and perfectly describes the very light grey colour of the blossoms just as they are about to fall.
The tree is unique and offers three very distinct appearances. It initially sprouts pale pink flowers, which become pure white in full bloom, finally changing to pale grey before falling to the ground.
The best time to view the cherry blossoms in Gifu is from early to mid-April.
Six Sakura Tips
If you do happen to find yourself in Japan during cherry blossom season, one of the best ways to get into the spirit of things is to come to a public park prepared. As Asano-san suggests, there are six simple ways to get the best out of your very own sakura party.
1. Pick up a plastic sheet from any 100-yen store
2. Get to the park early to reserve your hanami spot
3. Bring a Japanese bento, snacks and plenty of drinks
4. Save some room for Japanese festival food at one of the yatai (food stalls)
5. Bring along some pocket wipes or tissues for the clean up
6. Relax and enjoy the beautiful cherry blossoms!
Japan is a scenic destination at the best of times, yet there is arguably no more vivid a time to visit than when its cherry blossoms are in full bloom. With the season just around the corner, what are you waiting for? Perhaps it's time to start planning your own sakura party today.