Watch hanami forecasts to plan cherry blossom trips
In Japan, looking at cherry blossoms is almost a national sport. Called hanami, or flower viewing, festivals across the country celebrate the arrival of spring and the fragrant blooms. But blink your eye and the season is over; a typical cherry tree goes from budding to losing its blossoms in little more than a week. Planning a longer stay in the cherry capitals of Japan and Washington, D.C., is one way to ensure not missing the peak. Another way is to select a city where the bloom time is longer than normal.
Here today, gone tomorrow: Cherry blossom season
Cherries are somewhat predictable in their blooming time. They show their pink petals every spring, but the weather dictates exactly when they arrive and how long they last. Catching them in their prime requires a little luck. If possible, leave trip planning to the last minute and watch the blossom forecasts for a greater likelihood of seeing the blooms.
Cherry blossoms love warmth, and a mild sunny spell will bring them on faster. But if it gets too hot, they can fade and die quickly. Cool weather can slow down their arrival but also keep the blooms on the trees longer. A brisk wind or heavy rain can end the show quickly, no matter the temperature. Standing under a cherry tree in the midst of a shower of petals, however, is a highlight of the hanami experience.
Japan: Birthplace of hanami
The iconic place to see cherry blossoms is Japan. A visit from late March to early April is the best time to experience hanami in the land where the tradition originated. The majority of trees in Japan’s central regions bloom then, assuming the weather cooperates. Trees in Japan’s far south bloom earlier, as early as January in Okinawa. The bloom is latest in the north, as late as the end of May on the island of Hokkaido.
Japan welcomes cherry blossoms, called sakura, with festivals and picnics in parks across the country. The timing of the blossoms is followed closely on the national news, and the Japan Meteorological Agency forecasts when the blossoms will hit their peak across the country. Spring is a time of new beginnings, and Japan celebrates hanami with the beginnings of the school year and the financial year, both on April 1, around the time the cherry blossom front hits Tokyo.
Washington: National Cherry Blossom Festival
Cherry blossoms in the U.S. capital bloom around the same time as in Tokyo. The cherry blossom peak in Washington lasts about two weeks every year sometime between late March and early April. The city hosts a weeks-long festival every year, with dates that shift to try to maximize blossom viewing.
Every year in early March, the National Park Service issues a prediction for that spring’s cherry blossom season. The absolute peak of the blossoms varies: In 2012, March 20 was deemed the peak, and for the three years following, the peak fell on April 9 or 10. The 2016 and 2017 peaks were earlier, on March 24 and 25. The average peak bloom, tracked since 1921, is April 4. It pays to monitor the Park Service’s blossom forecast to fine-tune trip planning.
Vancouver: Longer viewing and a cherry blossom blizzard
It doesn’t snow often in Vancouver, British Columbia, but every spring there is a blizzard of cherry blossoms. The cherry blossom season lasts and lasts. Thanks to 54 different cultivars, the city’s 40,000 cherry trees bloom for months. This means the timing of your trip to see them doesn’t need to be as precise as a trip to Japan or Washington.
The annual Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival takes place during the first few weeks of April, but it is possible to see cherry blossoms there from mid-February to the end of May. It won’t feel exactly like Tokyo, but this Pacific Rim city's 500 original trees were a gift from Japan. Vancouver seems full of blossoms during its long spring; 12.5 percent of the city’s trees are ornamental cherry, and 9 percent are plum, also prized for viewing in Japan.
All good things must come to an end. In late April and May, Vancouver forecasts cherry blossom blizzards. The city is full of visitors from Japan and the rest of the world who come to see the extended sakura snowfall.