Winter Hanami in Okinawa

Just when the rest of Japan is buried in its winter jackets, Okinawa is in the pink.

Although this time of year finds most of the country fully decked in the russet and ochre tones of koyo (autumn foliage), the islands that make up Okinawa are only a few short months away from Japan’s best known celebrations of the changing seasons.

One of the most closely watched signs of spring—the pink buds and blooms of the sakura, or cherry tree—make their oh-so-brief appearance in March and April, giving everyone a short-lived license to make merry under the blossoms. But in Okinawa, at a time when most mainlanders are heading down south to seek some respite from the worst of the winter cold, the picturesque beaches and blue seas have a bit of competition when it comes to scenery: Japan’s earliest cherry season, which begins in the middle of January.

In fact, because the sakura bloom requires a combination of hot and cold weather, the “wave” of cherry blossoming begins at the northern end of the Okinawan island chain. Then a cold front heads towards the south, bringing a wave of dark pink to the southern islands of the chain.

Okinawa is known as a place where things are done a little differently than they are on the mainland, and the local hanami tradition is no different, beginning with the sakura themselves. The traditional cherry blossoms for which Japan is best known are the pale pink flowers of the Someiyoshino (the Yoshino cherry tree), which also blooms at the same time as the other trees around it, making for the vast swaths of pink that appear in most people’s quintessential “Japanese cherry blossom experience.” However, the Hikanzakura is the dominant blossom in the south. This species of tree yields flowers of a more robust pink, its petals stay longer on the tree, and—perhaps as a reflection of the individualistic spirit of the Ryukyu Islands, each tree tends to bloom at its own pace.

This also changes the way that hanami is conducted in Okinawa. Instead of staying put and enjoying the company of friends and a few bottles of your favorite adult beverage, hanami in Okinawa is often an ambulatory affair. Some of the best spots for cherry-blossom viewing in Okinawa are about an hour’s drive to the north of Naha, but these festivals allow you to take the southern prefecture’s cultural celebrations, unique history, and ocean views in stride, accompanied by the rare pleasure of enjoying hanami in a subtropical setting.

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Yanbaru, the northern part of Okinawa, is the first area that springs into bloom, and is the home of many cherry blossom festivals. Perhaps one of the most beautiful, and the most celebrated, is the Motobu Yaedake Sakura Festival, which will be in its 38th year. This festival makes the most of the nearby landscape, where you can look down over a vista of trees in full bloom from the height of Yaedake, marveling at an unfurled carpet of pink that billows down from the mountain slope.

Another popular hanami spot in Yanbaru offers a chance to take in the cherry blossoms surrounded by the remnants of generations past. The Nakijin Gusuku Sakura Festival is held at the ruins of Nakijin Castle. While the festival has only been running for the last few years, its unique location makes it a popular draw for locals and visitors from farther afield. Nakijin Castle was only in active use for a short time—construction on the site began in the late 13th century as a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and it was destroyed about 300 years later by feudal armies from Kyushu—but the echoes of history that can be felt by gazing on the stretches of stone wall make it a place that people return to again and again. By night, the area around the cherry trees is illuminated, making for an experience that combines a sense of the passage of history and the ever-renewing cycles of nature.

If you’re looking for a more festive atmosphere to accompany your hanami experience down south, you should drop in on the oldest and largest of the festivals around northern Okinawa: the Nago Sakura Festival. Boasting a lively and colorful costume parade, traditional Okinawan Eisa dancing in the streets, and taiko drum performances, the centerpiece of the Nago Sakura Festival is the more than 20,000 Hikanzakura that festoon Nago Central Park, itself the former site of a ruined castle.

To the south of Naha, at Yaese Park, a 200-step staircase is flanked by rows of the pink-blossomed Hikanzakuri. On clear days, you can see Shuri Castle, and out to the East China Sea and the Kerama Islands, while during the evenings, the cherry trees on either side of the walkway are lit up, making the experience all the more memorable.

If a bit of island hopping is on your Okinawan itinerary, you can make your way to Kumejima, which is several hops away from the main island. It’s a location where you can take in the small island ambience while also seeing the blossoms that have made the country famous.

And you’ll find that the blossoms aren’t too far away, even if you stay close to the city of Naha, which has plenty to offer on its own. The two sakura matsuri close by Naha are the four-day Naha Sakura Matsuri, held at Yogi Park from February 11 to 15, and Manko Sakura, held at Manko Park, during the middle of February.

Sakura Watch

The following are the dates for some of Okinawa’s best-known festivals. However, because we’re talking about a natural phenomenon, it’s always best to check with an official cherry blossom forecast, one of which can be found at
www.jnto.go.jp/sakura.

Nago Cherry Blossom Festival 2016:
January 31–February 1

Motobu Yaedake Cherry Blossom Festival 2016:
January 16–January 31

Yaese Cherry Blossom Festival 2016:
January 31

Nakijin Gusuku Cherry Blossom Festival 2016:
January 16–February 1


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