It’s End of March – Where Are Japan’s Cherry Blossoms? (Updated)

It’s End of March – Where Are Japan’s Cherry Blossoms? (Updated)

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Woman wondering where the cherry blossoms went
Pictures: : K@zuTa; metamorworks / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Everyone's been waiting in Japan for the cherry blossoms to bloom. But thanks to the weather, sightseers may be waiting a little longer.

Turn on the news in Japan this month and you’ll see one of two stories. One is the scandal around Dodgers baseball player Ohtani Shohei’s interpreter. (Don’t ask us – we don’t know nothin’ ’bout sportsball.) The other is reporters asking in near-panicked voices: where are the cherry blossoms already?!

An annual ritual

Cherry blossom trees along the Matsu River in Toyama, Toyama Prefecture. (Picture: たこ / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Is a picture of Japan really a picture of Japan if it doesn’t include some cherry blossoms (桜; sakura)? The flowers from Japan’s cherry trees are so iconic that they’ve become a de facto symbol of the country.

Cherry blossom viewing (花見; hanami) has been a national pastime since Japan’s Heian era. The country has several strains of cherry blossom trees that bloom at different times of the spring season. The most popular variety is the Somei-yoshino, a strain that gained popularity in the Meiji era as its trees only take two years to start blooming.

Hanami isn’t just an enjoyable way to spend a weekend – it’s also become big business. Economics predict the flowers will haul in over USD $7.5 billion for the country as people travel and go out to enjoy full bloom (満開; mankai). As usual, multiple stores and brands are getting in on the sakura action with special cherry blossom-themed goods. Even Dominos Pizza Japan has joined the fray with its…unique “sakura pizza”.

Japan’s wacky weather brings blossom blues

A representative from Japan’s Meteorological Agency at Yasukuni Shrine saying that full bloom is delayed (again).

However, thanks to the weird weather in Japan lately, sakura blooming has been delayed in multiple areas well past when experts initially predicted.

The culprit? Colder than expected temperatures. Cherry blossoms open as the weather warms up and spring approaches. In recent years, thanks to climate change, the flowers have been blooming earlier than usual.

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But this March in Japan, we’ve experienced an unusual streak of cold weather. Temps have been lower than average, with some days feeling like a continuation of winter. In eastern Japan, this has been accompanied by rain and dangerously strong winds.

That’s led the sakura trees – in particular, the ubiquitous Somei-yoshino strain – to conclude that they’re fine keeping their blooms inside for now, thank you very much.

In Tokyo, the Japan Meteorological Agency announces the “official” start of blooming. A representative checks the state of six “standard-bearer trees” (標本木; hyouhonboku) at the city’s Yasukuni Shrine. (There are 58 such trees used to declare mankai throughout Japan.)

As of yesterday, March 28th, only five of the six trees used to decree the start of blooming (開花; kaika) had passed muster. That means that, as of March 29th, we’re still waiting for the blossoms to rock-n-roll.

Last year in Tokyo, blooming started on March 15th, with full bloom around March 20th. This is the first time in 12 years the blossoms have been this delayed.

What of the cherry blossom festivals?

Meguro River cherry blossoms
Meguro River cherry blossoms, taken on March 22nd, 2023. This year, the flowers are blossoming well past their expected arrival date. (Picture by the author)

The delayed bloom has left the purveyors of Japan’s cherry blossom festivals wondering what to do.

Such festivals are usually huge economic opportunities for the neighborhoods sponsoring them, with local shops setting up food and merchandise booths along popular viewing areas. However, a cherry blossom viewing party without cherry blossoms to view isn’t much of a party.

Some festival sponsors are responding by pushing festival dates off. In Saitama Prefecture, the town of Ina says they’ll delay their Sakura Matsuri from March 25th until April 4th. Others have gone ahead with their planned dates – with disappointing results. Last weekend’s Nakameguro Sakura Matsuri in Tokyo was a letdown – and, representatives say, possibly the first time in 38 years that they’ve held the festival before blooming began.

The good news? This next week’s weather report shows things taking a turn for the spring-y. It looks likely that we’ll see flowers bloom to full capacity over the next five days, as the temperature is expected to climb up to the low 20s Celsius (low 70s Fahrenheit). Hopefully, that means we’ll have at least one delightful week of reveling in some of the best views Japan has to offer.

Update: First bloom hits Tokyo on March 29th

About six hours after going to press, Japan’s Meteorological Agency confirmed from the ground of Yasukuni Shrine that Tokyo was officially in sakura bloom. The announcement comes an average of five days later than in years past.

Sources

最新の桜開花・満開予想 昨年より大幅遅れ 東京は29日開花 4月上旬に見ごろ多い. Tenki.jp

【開花待ちわびて…】ひと足先にお花見気分 東京・上野公園から中継. NTV News (via YouTube)

【速報】東京の桜開花まで「あと1輪」靖国神社の標本木は4輪開花. FNN Prime Online

【東京の桜“】開花”はいつ? 祭りは延期検討、観光客は… NTV News (via YouTube)

開花を宣言する「標本木」は全国に58本. WeatherNews.jp

開花またずに「桜まつり」、待ちわびる東京都民は早咲きの花に足止め. Asahi Shimbun

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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