The beauty of the cherry blossoms incites fervour from international travellers and locals alike. Photo by Carlos Donderis / CC BY 2.0
The allure of cherry blossoms is hard to deny. Also known as sakura, the typically pale pink flowers herald the start of the Spring season and are welcome signs of greenery returning to the land. With the flowers having become especially favoured in recent years, as evidenced by the increasing traffic to cherry blossom sites, the arrival of the beautiful blooms also provides ample cause for celebration and appreciation.
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And while the idea of a holiday revolving around the heart-lifting phenomenon seems theoretically easy, it actually does require some serious advance planning to make it work out, particularly in the world’s premier cherry blossom destination, Japan, where there is a specific term — hanami — for the enjoyment of cherry blossoms. One tell-tale sign lies in the relatively short window of about two weeks, from the opening of the first blooms to the disappearance of blossoms from the branches. Factors beyond human control, such as the temperature, wind and rain, also have a significant impact on the viewing window. And we’ve not even gotten started on hanami etiquette.
Well, with Quotient’s quick guide to enjoying cherry blossoms, you can cast your worries aside. From a selection of countries where the flowers bloom to the various festivities available to professional tips on how to photograph the pale-pink wonders, let us inspire you and help craft a journey that truly suits your tastes. Perhaps getting a decent dose of hanami may be on your cards this year!
Where and when the flowers bloom
When it comes to cherry blossoms, the first destination that immediately comes to mind has to be Japan. The country not only has the most types but arguably the most number of cherry trees in the world. Add to that plenty of well-maintained historical monuments acting as ideal backdrops for the flowers and the sheer cultural phenomenon cherry blossom viewing seems to have become in Japan (it is their national flower after all), and it’s unsurprising that the country immediately pops into mind when conversation over the sakura erupts.
Japan might have a fantastic hanami atmosphere going during the season, but it’s well worth noting that the country is quite literally packed full of people during this time as international tourists swarm in droves to catch sight of the sakura. Most luxury hotels and ryokans are also snapped up many months in advance, so if for some reason you did not book your accommodation or secure flights at least 4 months in advance, you’re pretty much left in agony.
Besides Japan, there are plenty other places you can journey to for a glimpse of the cherry blossoms. Taiwan and South Korea, for example, have become increasingly popular destinations in Asia for sightings of the delicate blooms. With comparatively smaller crowds, cheaper fares and the close proximity of these places to Singapore, there’s little reason not to consider these destinations as alternatives.
Beyond Asia, sightings of the blooming sakura are also causes for celebration. On European soil, the flower shows up in Paris, Stockholm and Spain, while in the Americas, the USA and Canada are some of the contenders for top spots to view the cherry blossoms. Although these countries are slightly farther off, their distinctive landscapes add an entirely different dimension to cherry blossom viewing, especially when the flowers bloom close to prominent landmarks. Plus, the craze over cherry blossoms hasn’t quite reached fanatic proportions, which means ample space for you and your fellow travellers to fully soak in the views of the flowers and reasonable travel fees.
The cherry blossom season typically runs in Spring from as early as February to mid-April, although the budding of the highly volatile flowers are highly dependent on weather conditions. As such, it would be prudent to factor in some buffer time during your stay to increase your chances of encountering the sakura.
Catch the cherry blossoms in their full splendour
We agree; cherry blossoms are gorgeous on their own. But picture this: classic monuments framed by sakura blossoms, with the pink petals forming a seemingly endless canopy overhead and a luscious carpet of cherry blossoms to tread upon — surely some of the most enchanting scenes you’ll ever see.
For vantage points, head to the Alishan Forest Recreation area in Taiwan, which remains one of the most popular spots for cherry blossom viewing. Along with its high altitude that affords spectacular panoramic views, the presence of 18,000 Yoshino sakura trees from Japan and over 10 breeds of cherry trees come together to form a picturesque wonder. Mount Yoshino in Japan also has as many as 30,000 cherry trees covering the mountainous landscape, transforming the locale into a pale pink paradise; the sight is so spectacular that the destination has been named “Japan’s best cherry blossom site” by the Japan National Tourism Organisation. For an alternative destination, the Jerte Valley in Spain also offers unimpeded views of the sakura flowers, with a startling number of two million trees in total covering the landscape.
The flower’s beauty can also be enhanced by its surroundings. In Paris, catch the sakura as it blooms in front of the iconic Eiffel Tower at the Parc du Champ de Mars. Or, in the USA, you just might come across the thousands of cherry blossom trees flowering near the White House in Washington D.C. Not forgetting Taiwan and Japan, of course, where the sakura can often be spotted next to traditional buildings such as historic palaces and temples.
To stroll under an umbrella of innocent blooms, parks are your best call. If being surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of sakura trees are what you’re looking for, places such as the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York or Ueno Park in Japan are the perfect choices. The port city of Jinhae in South Korea is also one such destination. There, the pink and white petals even line the Yeojwacheon stream, creating a vision of ethereal beauty. Comparatively, Sweden and Canada don’t have quite as many cherry blossom trees but the clusters present at the Kungsträdgården in Stockholm and the Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver still make visits well worth your while.
Join in the cherry blossom celebrations
During the cherry blossom season, it is customary to celebrate with hanami parties, also known as cherry blossom viewing parties.
The tradition first started in Japan, where the beautiful scenes of the flourishing flowers are typically enjoyed in tandem with picnics and the sporadic traditional performance. Hanami bento, where vegetables are cut in the shape of a sakura flower, onigiri, sakura mochi, sake and tea are some of the consumables enjoyed during these occasions. Other essentials to enjoy the occasion in Japan include a picnic sheet to sit on and trash bags to clean up after. Sitting on the mat with your shoes on and disturbing the sakura trees are big no-nos travellers should take note of.
Although the other countries don’t follow this practice as closely, cherry blossom festivals have also sprung up worldwide in honour of the lovely transient flower. Some of the biggest festivals, including the Sakura Festival at the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village in Taiwan, the Jinhae Gunhangje Cherry Blossom Festival in South Korea and the Sakura Matsuri in the USA all borrow aspects from the Japanese hanami, but also spice things up by including other events such as tea ceremonies, poetry recitals and light-up trails that illuminate the blossoms at night.
If you’re in the mood to better appreciate the cherry blossoms, opt for less crowded celebrations such as the Cherry Blossom Day in Stockholm and the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival. Since cherry blossoms are less of a cultural phenomenon in these areas, the festivals tend to be less packed as compared to their Asian counterparts. Better yet, the Parc du Champ de Mars in Paris does not schedule any particular festivities, meaning that travellers get to enjoy viewing the blossoms in relative tranquility.
Capture the cherry blossoms at their best
The subtle hues of the flowers mean that their true glory can sometimes be hard to photograph. Much like capturing any other picture, key circumstances such as the best time of the day to shoot, lighting and setting should all be taken into consideration.
The award-winning professional photographer Art Wolfe shared his top tips on how to capture the cherry blossoms with Popular Photography, a handy magazine that covers photography tips and tricks, and now Quotient. One of several pointers he shared was to begin shooting in the early morning when the wind is generally calmer as this makes it easier to capture a sharp picture since the trees won’t be rustling as much. As the light is also gentler then, the colours of a picture-perfect scene will be further enhanced. Of course, when you set off early it is also likely that less people will be around to cause disruptions to your picture.
Still on lighting, Wolfe emphasised that low light saturates the cherry blossoms more, making it easier to photograph the distinctive colours of the flowers. Travellers can also utilise polarised lenses to take the glare off the sakura petals so that their natural hues come across stronger.
When framing another subject with the delicate blooms, be sure to take note of your aperture and focus settings. If photographers desire to make a building the subject of their composition with cherry blossoms in the foreground, they should set the focus on the building and also opt for their smallest aperture to ensure the building looks sharp, advised Wolfe.
That said, don’t be afraid to just capture the sakura by themselves. To go in-depth and only photograph the blooms, opt for a close-up with a high zoom and a high aperture to create a shallow depth of field such that the background of the cherry blossoms will be blurred. According to Wolfe, this better accentuates the detail of the flowers.
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