Sally Uhlmann and Kristen Hoelle on the gondola to a herb garden atop Mount Rokkomin Kobe

Shinto Shrine at opening waters to Miyajima Island

Sakura, in Japan, means far more than the literal translation of cherry blossoms. It symbolizes the beginning of spring and represents life, death, vitality and renewal. For well over a thousand years cherry blossoms have been ingrained in Japanese culture, from art, literature, textiles, paintings and entertainment to annual celebrations. Kamikaze pilots in World War II had cherry blossoms painted on their planes.

Well in advance of the March-to-April bloom time, forecasters predict when to expect Sakura. Part of the appeal of cherry blossoms, beyond their exquisite beauty, is how they are unpredictable, ephemeral, short-lived and delicate. Hanami is the ritual of gazing upon the flowers while contemplating life. Sakura and Hanami are a national obsession. Updates inform people where to find the best Sakura on any given day. Public parks swell with families picnicking beneath cherry trees while countless people attired in traditional kimonos pose with a backdrop of blossoms. Photos are posted, holidays are celebrated, and restaurants go so far as to sprinkle dishes with cherry blossom powder. Japan transforms itself into a cherry blossom symphony.

Imperial Gardens in Tokyo, Japan

I dreamed of experiencing Sakura since I was a young girl and visited the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco. While my siblings played tag, I wandered through thickets of bamboo and rhododendron, stopping on an arched bridge to watch gaily patterned koi fish slowly circle, their powerful fins moving effortlessly. I gasped when I looked up and saw cherry trees in full bloom, the petals punctuating the blueness of the sky. I clapped my hands, bouncing up and down. “You must, simply must, see them in Japan,” an elderly woman confided to me, noting my giddiness. “They are a vison of heaven and perfection, never to be forgotten. So fragile and fleeting.” This random comment from a total stranger stayed with me, causing me to yearn to visit Japan and see the blossoms.

In late April of 2018, I made my first trip to Japan expressly to view the cherry trees. Kansas City clothing designer Holly Orme accompanied me on a three-week trip. “Where are the cherry trees blooming?” I inquired as we checked into our Tokyo hotel.

Temple in Fukuoka, Japan

“Oh, Madame, so sorry. It’s been unusually hot this spring and the blossoms finished last week. The azaleas are blooming at the Imperial Gardens. They are very special.” They were extraordinary, but they were not cherry blossoms.

Every city we visited was the same — we just missed them. Our trip ended in Sapporo, the capital of the mountainous northern island of Hokkaido. On our second day, the hotel concierge informed us that cherry blossoms were supposedly blooming at a park within walking distance. Holly and I set out, the skies overcast, the day foreboding. The sizable park included a long avenue framed with groves of cherry trees, their petals giving way to emerging leaves. The petals swirled in loops from the trees as the wind gusted, their once vibrant colors drained to near white. The lawns were veiled in petals. In the midst of this a bride and groom appeared. I have accumulated hundreds of bride photos spanning the globe, but this one was special. She was enchanting, the lighting perfect due to the grayness of the heavens contrasted with the green lawns and petals that complemented her dress with gauzy dreaminess. I took my photos, then the skies gushed with a rain so cold it felt like hail. The last blossoms fell to the ground.

River Walk in Fukuoka, Japan

I returned to Japan this spring determined to bathe my soul in blossoms. This was Japan’s first Sakura since Covid lockdowns ended, and the entire country was teeming with energy. I am delighted to report that my early March timing was perfect. I was greeted with a country filled with trees at the height of their bloom. Sidewalks beside my Tokyo hotel were ablaze in a profusion of white, pale pink and deeper pink blossoms artfully lit at night. I spent a week in Tokyo before embarking on a cruise with a friend that began and ended in Tokyo, circling Southern Japan, and docking each day in an exotic port that was home to innumerable cherry trees. It felt everywhere as if we had been transported to a mystical land. Hillsides thick with evergreens, maples, ginkgos and shrubs were dotted with pastel blossoms. Streams, canals and riverbanks had sweeps of them, while stately individual trees shouted out their glory. I soaked in all their variations and nuances. There are over 250 varieties. A typical cherry tree lives 16 to 20 years, while black cherries live over 200 years. Then there are the revered, mighty, sacred cherry trees that are said to be a thousand years old with spirits inhabiting them, their bark and limbs gnarled with character and timeless strength. Each one is worshipped, bound with a thick ceremonial rope, and mapped. People make pilgrimages to stand beside them. One such tree is in the Imperial Garden in Tokyo, majestic, wide, mighty. I stood before it speechless and humbled.

Tokyo, the world’s most populated city, always thrilling and quirky, was awash in blooms and offered a prelude of what was to come throughout our journey. Everyone, everywhere, jumped into the Sakura spirit with stores, restaurants, hotels, train stations and private residences paying homage to the season. Crowds flocked Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo to witness the impermanent quality of life. The tree blooms for only two weeks; then the petals create patterns to cloak the earth. What a glorious two weeks.

Cherry Blossoms lining a Tokyo street

Japan, for me, after two visits, feels truly foreign, far more so than India, Cambodia, Vietnam or China. Less than 30% of the population understands any English and only 9% feels comfortable speaking it. Signs are entirely in Japanese. Navigating is a challenge even with Google Translate. Japan’s subway and train system is spotlessly clean and excellent if you are bold enough to figure out the route and can tolerate a crowded crush. The people are incredibly courteous, friendly and concerned that you are okay, yet they remain culturally separated from Westerners. Try to walk away from a store cashier without taking your penny in change and you will experience how they simply cannot allow this to happen. They are insulted if you leave them a tip, as it implies they work for a business that does not properly pay their employees or — worse — you think they are only doing their job in order to receive a tip. They thank you profusely for your business and see you out the door, bowing and smiling. Their genuine good manners provide a softer, gentler approach to life. I realize this is a broad generalization and open to debate.

Holly Orme with local guide at Imperial Gardens in Tokyo, Japan

If you have not experienced Sakura, I urge you to make the journey. It is life altering and well worth the effort it takes to preplan and book your trip. A surge in tourism coupled with Japan being densely populated increases the importance of securing reservations for lodging and food unless you are a carefree spirit who loves to wing it and doesn’t mind where you eat or what you are able to visit. One of our most memorable activities, Team Planet Labs in Tokyo, required tickets weeks in advance. Many restaurants seat a dozen or fewer guests, and reservations are a must.

My first trip was done entirely by train. I hired, through the internet, a travel writer in Japan to help me plan the trip. There is so much to see — shrines, temples, forests, gardens, castles and thriving cities. I found, on this recent trip, that taking a cruise is a far less stressful, but entirely different, way to visit multiple sites. We did, however, book our own day trips rather than taking bus tours with the cruise line. Two excellent resources — Get Your Guide and Tours by Locals — can provide you with a menu of activities and private tours. I use them throughout the world. I book guides well in advance and ask them for dining suggestions.

Life is memories. My ones of Japan and Sakura will live within me forever. There is no right or wrong way to Chase Cherry Blossoms — only your way. Invest in doing the research and planning, booking in advance if possible. Hotels will ship your suitcases between cities if you wish to travel by train. Local guides are readily available. Start figuring out your journey now for next March. You’ll create memories worth sharing.

–Sally Uhlmann


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