The cherry blossom season is in full bloom in Japan and anyone who wants to enjoy the stunning beauty of sakura would naturally head to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan remains the undisputed destination to celebrate the hanami (cherry blossom viewing), with the entire country putting aside their work – for a while, at least – to simply gather under the blossoming trees to drink, sing, chat and enjoy the spectacle.
It’s a Japanese cultural practice that has been celebrated for many centuries, but over the last decade, it has even become an international tourist attraction.
In fact, Japan is at its peak with its tourism, with mostly East Asian travellers from the likes of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, flocking the country. These also include Malaysians, Thais and Singaporeans, who are just as familiar with the sakura season.
Unfortunately for me, I was headed in the wrong direction. I was going West, not East. London was my destination, and there was no way the city could offer that kind of pink-clustered experience.
Still, I was determined not to be left out (Me, kiasu?). After all, the sakura trees blossom in other temperate countries this time of year, too.
Planning my mission was easy. All I did was search for the parks and streets that had the best cherry blossom trees, and soon, the information was popping up fast and furiously.
More in depth searching on Instagram and You Tube offered more views of what I could check out in London, and in some postings, there were pictures of the best poses for an IG upload. I love social media for assisting in travel plans and gleaning the best IG pictures.
Other Malaysians, on learning my plan to seek sakura, asked if they, too, could join me on this somewhat ridiculous hunt. I cautioned them about this being an unconventional pursuit, and it being my travel intention.
From the online searches, I knew I would be in good company because the postings revealed that they were mainly made by the Chinese, who knew exactly what they were looking for. And despite being a seasoned traveller, there were parks I wasn’t familiar with, so, it was gearing up to be an off the beat adventure.
My first stop was Kyoto Garden in Holland Park, an affluent area where the rich and famous reside, including ex-footballer David Beckham and his wife, once-Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, music mogul Simon Cowell and legendary singer Sir Elton John.
Fukushima Garden – and the adjoining Kyoto Garden – is almost a hidden gem. It’s well-hidden and situated in a very quiet and tranquil part of West London. My friend, who had worked at nearby Bayswater, had never heard of this Japanese garden until my recent visit.
The garden, which opened in 20102, was created as an expression of gratitude by Japan for the support the British provided following the tsunami of March 2011, and as one report aptly put it, “it’s designed as a place for quiet contemplation, a peaceful contrast to the adjoining and better-known Kyoto Garden.”
When I arrived, it was still the very early days of the sakura season, and to be frank, I was a little disappointed because my expectations were just too high. I was hoping the trees would be in full bloom, so it would fit well for the backdrop of my video.
But as I soaked in the sights more, I realised that it’s indeed a beautiful place, and after all, this isn’t Tokyo’s Ueno Park. And the presence of a peacock at this charming and lovely enclave pleased me tremendously.
My next port of call was Ravenscourt Park, at the Hammersmith and Fulham areas. Like the rest of my garden trail, this was also my first visit to this 8.3ha public park, which won the Green Flag Award for parks, a national recognition for well-managed and accessible parks.
I found the best sakura spot in London here. There were plenty of East Asians milling about, and I overheard excited chattering in Mandarin, Cantonese and even Tagalog. A group of Hong Kong youngsters were even having a picnic – just like the Japanese – at the park, next to the cherry blossom trees, and many were painstakingly taking the perfect IG poses and shots, which revealed how seriously they took the hanami celebrations.
Charmingly, little known Ravenscourt Park was the best spot for sakura in London, as picture perfect as the descriptions and depictions on social media.
Naturally, the excitement of us East Asians drew curious and amused looks from some Londoner passers-by. After all, the cherry blossom celebration is presumably alien to these Westerners.
Our sakura hunt continued with a stop at Radcliffe Road in Chelsea, but this time around, no cherry blossom lined the avenue. IG pictures of this spot had been extremely breathtaking in previous years.
As writer Luke Abraham put it, “for as far as the eye can see, countless rosy posy florets glimmer proudly amongst high Victoriana and Georgian architectural chic.”
We then moved on to Regent’s Park, where we found mature cherry blossom trees in full bloom, not far from the Rose Gardens and three-tiered fountains.
As the trip wound down, we decided to pop by the famous Hyde Park, where we spotted a few trees too, and I became resigned to the conclusion that it was simply too early in the season, and if I were to come in mid-April, I would surely get the best pictures.
But it was time to say sayonara to my short lay-off in London, en-route to Germany. I am grateful that I had a glimpse of the sakura, especially in a Western country. And to top it all off, and for the sake (pun intended) of the occasion, well, a little sake was in order.