Sakura, Sakura: My ohanami (cherry blossom viewing) at Sankei-en, Yokohama

Cherry tree blossoms (sakura) at Sankei-en, Yokohama

I will get back to my Kyoto Postcards, but I wanted to talk a little about cherry blossoms first, before April ends.

I have written about the ohanami, or cherry blossom viewing, culture in Japan previously. As I wrote back then, one of the things I miss about not living in Japan is the cherry blossoms in the spring. For this trip back home, I wanted to be sure not to miss the cherry blossoms.

Cherry blossom trees, or sakura no ki, are everywhere in Japan. They are often planted in school yards and playgrounds, in Buddhist temple or shinto shrine grounds, in the corner of a garden, or along the side of a road. These old trees are growing on the grounds of an elementary school.

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But there are certain places where the cherry trees are just that much more spectacular. One of those places is Sankei-en (三渓園), a beautiful garden in Yokohama. It was conceived and built by a rich silk merchant, Tomitaro Hara (who used the pseudonym Sankei Hara), a former teacher turned successful businessman (he married one of his former students and was adopted into her wealthy family to take over the family trade). Tomitaro apparently had an artistic side - he patronised many artists and his art collection was of great renown, though sadly it was lost during the chaos of the post-World War II period. For his gardens, he liked to collect beautiful old, historical buildings from around the country that were in various states of disrepair, and have them reassembled on his property. So, Sankei-en is a rich man's indulgence, but executed with such taste. In 1906, he opened the gardens to the public for free, and even provided the visitors clean drinking water and firewood, so that they could enjoy a little picnic while appreciating his creation. Nowadays the gardens are run by a non-profit foundation, and the entrance fee for adults is 500 yen.

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Sankei-en is one of the top places for ohanami (sakura or cherry blossom viewing) in the Tokyo metropolitan area - and tends to be a bit less crowded than the ones in central Tokyo such as Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen. Plus, it's fairly close to where my mother lives. The weather in the Tokyo area has been very temperamental, so it was difficult to gauge the right day to go. On the first day when it was not supposed to rain and even some sun was promised, I grabbed my camera and went to capture some sakura. Despite the overcast sky and the chilly temperatures, it was well worth it.

Sankei-en, Yokohama in early April

I did say that Sankei-en tends to be less crowded than other sakura viewing destinations. Still, this being Japan, and despite the weather, there were plenty of other people enjoying the blossoms.

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These folks are determined to enjoy their bento lunches and do a proper ohanami under the cherry trees.

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For people who forgot to bring a bento lunch, all cherry blossom viewing destinations have plenty of food stalls (yatai 屋台) set up, selling various snacks and beverages. Here they are selling yakisoba noodles, chicken karaage and hard boiled eggs.

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Sankei-en even has a small ramen shop. There's also a place to enjoy matcha tea and wagashi (Japanese sweets) in the small museum, where there is a small exhibit about the gardens and its creator, Tomitaro Hara.

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Sankei-en also has a couple of tea houses (茶屋) that are used for tea ceremonies. Here are some girls dressed in kimonos, most likely making their way to one. They made me want to don a kimono myself the next time I come to these gardens.

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These ladies were arriving a bit late for their tea ceremony.

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Back to the more mundane world of snacks, these folks are lined up to buy oden and kushi dango (skewered rice dumplings). I joined them after taking this photo...

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The mitarashi dango were okay - the sauce was a bit too sweet for my taste.

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But the oroshi dango - the same rice dumplings served with a mound of grated daikon radish, a little soy sauce and a sprinkle of nori - were delicious. I had a glass cup of hot sake with my dango - after all, what is ohanami without a little tipple?

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Practical details

Sankei-en is a little hard to get to, but well worth the effort. The easiest way is probably to take a Yokohama City bus (no. 8 or no. 148) from the no. 2 stop at the bus terminal at Yokohama Station. The bus terminal is at the Higashi or East entrance of the station, next to Sogo department store. The stop to get off at is Honmoku Sankeien-mae (本牧三渓園前). The fare is 210 yen one way for adults, less for children, and you can use your PASMO or SUICA card. The park is about a 5 minute walk from the bus stop. Plan on spending at least 3 to 4 hours in the park. Afterwards, you can take the no. 8 bus back towards Yokohama station and hop off at Chinatown for some good, cheap eats, if the hardboiled eggs and dumplings didn't fill you up.

You can download an English brochure of Sankeien from this page on the official web site. The park is open from 9am to 5pm (during the season the park also opens at night, and the cherry trees are illuminated). Adult admission is 500 yen.

If you are planning a trip to Japan and are determined to catch the cherry blossoms in full bloom, it can be a bit tricky. Generally speaking, the cherry blossom season in the Tokyo (Kanto) and Kyoto-Osaka-Nagoya (Kansai) regions starts around the last week of March and lasts until the 2nd or 3rd week of April. This is when the somei yoshino variety of cherry tree is in full bloom; many people regard this variety as the most quintessential, and beautiful, of the flowering cherry trees. If you're going to the southern part of mainland Japan, namely Kyushu, it's fairly safe to assume that the season will start about a week earlier; to the north of Tokyo the season is a week to 2 weeks later. Okinawa is too tropical for the somei yoshino variety - their cherry trees have a deeper pink kind of flower.

In any case, if you can, please do try to see Japan during the ohanami season. You will never forget it.

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