There is a certain romanticism associated with the Sakura trees: whether in parks or in Japanese Haikus. Courting the mystical imagination of a global audience, cherry blossoms have now become a worldwide celebration in blush pink as March approaches. Pale pink somei yoshino are the most popular blossoms and resemble puffs of clouds at the peak of their bloom. However, a symphony of cherry blossom trees grow, from pretty weeping varieties to the slightly later-blooming magenta coloured kanzan trees.
Hanami (flower/cherry blossom viewing) season famously begins in April in Japan and lasts for around two weeks. The best places to see them are in Maruyama Park, Mount Yishino, Himeji Castle and Fuji Five Lakes.
How to travel
There is a perception that travel to traditional Japan results in splurging on an exotic vacation. However, round trip flights from the UK to Tokyo start from as cheap as £350, if booked two months in advance.
The Shinkansen bullet train is the most convenient way to travel long distance and the Japan Rail Pass covers unlimited trips on the nationwide JR network. Available from about £200 for seven consecutive days, this pass is most useful for those wishing to do circular trips between multiple cities such as Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima. However, if you are interested in concentrating only on a particular coastline, then you can avail the JR East Pass – covering the Tokyo area and the northern Tohoku region, for five consecutive days from £145, lasting upto two weeks.
Accommodation in Japan is however, not as expensive as the travel costs. You can get a berth in a capsule hotel for as little as £22 per night. A private minshuku (local equivalent of Bed & Breakfast) is slightly expensive at £36 per room. However, if you are a little adventurous then you might want to stay in a ryokan, the traditional Japanese inns that usually come complete with tatami beds, sliding screens and onsite onsen (hot springs).
What to do
Japan has aplenty of hiking trails like the Nakasendo trail in Nagano’s Kiso Valley, or the old Tokaido highway between Hakone and Mishima – routes that historically linked Tokyo and Kyoto. Trails along the north shore of Lake Kawaguchi in Yamanashi offer a splendid view of a Mount Fuji.
Witnessing the hot springs (Onsen) after a walk in Nozawa (Nagano prefecture) and Kusatsu (Gunma prefecture), is a traditional experience quite exclusive to Japan aside from the tea and sushi.
Japanese castles are evocative of its feudal past and a glimpse into its elaborate art and culture. Few originals have survived and among those the recently restored 'White Egret Castle', Himeji-jō, and its natural foil, Matsumoto-jō, the fearsome black 'Crow Castle' should be watched.
Men and women at this traditional festival wear colourful cotton kimonos – and sometimes the men just wear short coats and fundoshi (the loincloths worn by sumo wrestlers). Rooted in Shintō and Buddhist traditions, these serve to renew age-old community bonds through dancing, bonfires and drumming.
What to eat
Think Japanese and one imagines sushi, hotpots, bento boxes and miso soups. Being a vegetarian in Japan can be difficult, but you will be spoilt for choice between tempura, ramen, rice crackers and tofu dishes. Look out for kappa-maki (seaweed rolls with cucumber) and takuan-maki (pickled daikon radish roll). You can also find sushi rolls made with umeboshi (pickled plum), and natto (fermented soybean). Inarizushi is rice stuffed in a tofu pocket—just check it wasn’t made with dashi.
Watch out for Tabelog, the local Yelp equivalent, it lets you search for restaurants by area, cuisine and budget, and while the English interface is a handy resource.