The World's 10 Best Cherry Blossom Festivals

When the pink and white blooms known as sakura signal the start of spring, cities around the world start celebrating. Check out our favorite cherry blossom festivals, from the small town of Macon, Georgia to the big annual blowout in Washington, D.C. and across the globe to Japan and Korea, plus travel tips on how to get there.

Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C.

"Cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C."

(Courtesy RSchatz/myBudgetTravel)

One of Japan's oldest and most-cherished customs, the hanami, or cherry blossom viewing party, has become a worldwide celebration that stretches from Vancouver to D.C. to Korea.

Based on the Chinese custom of viewing blossoming plum trees, this botanical harbinger of spring has been celebrated since the early 700s, when revelers toasted the new season with sake, haiku writing, and music. Nowadays, in places as far-reaching as Copenhagen and Vancouver, visitors can expect an exciting mix of these traditions with more modern activities like parades, pageants, and fireworks displays.

Hanami is all about timing: The blooming cycle of the sakura, or cherry tree, is short-lived, usually just one to two weeks from the first buds opening (kaika) to full bloom (mankai). But the beauty lingers a while longer, as blizzards of fluttering petals fill the air and blanket the ground. Note that Mother Nature plays a big role in the timing of Japanese and South Korean festivals, and dates for many have not been announced as of press time. Often these dates will be announced within a week of the start date; however, look at the 2010 cherry blossom festival dates when planning, which will give an approximate start date for this year's festival. [UPDATE: Following in the wake of the earthquake and the tsunami in Japan, we encourage travelers to check with the U.S. State Department for travel warnings and safety information before planning any travel to the country.]

Himeji Castle Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan
The brilliant white-plaster exterior of the hilltop castle—said to resemble a heron in flight—serves as the backdrop to more than 1,000 sakura. The feudal castle complex of 80-plus buildings dates to the early 1300s  and is a UNESCO World Heritage site, conveniently located about 60 miles northwest of Osaka (it's best accessed by the Sanyo rail line, one-day passes start at $25). The three-day festival features traditional drum and harp performances, a ceremonial tea service, and specialty food booths, though a casual picnic can be an equally satisfying way to enjoy the blossoms. To avoid crowds, be sure to arrive early (the grounds open at 9 a.m. daily), and move well away down a flowering path to find a secluded spot by one of the pagoda-like towers. Don't Miss: The subtle hues of the illuminated cherry blossoms at night. Though the official festival lasts only three days, the blooms should stick around for about two weeks provided the weather is mild. Avoid the crowds by visiting on a nonfestival evening; the blooms stay lit throughout the two-week blooming period.
When to Go:
Festival dates have not been set as of press time. In 2010, the castle park was open to the public for night viewing from April 2 through 11, with the festival taking place April 2 through 4. Follow the bloom forecast on Japan Guide for updates.
Where to Stay:
The family-owned, 50-room Hotel Claire Higasa is a short walk from both the main rail station and the castle grounds. Be sure to request a room on the 7th floor with a castle view; these rooms are kitted out with a Jacuzzi from which one can soak and take in the beauty of the Himeji Castle. Doubles from $105,

Kitakami Tenshochi Cherry Blossom Festival Kitakami, Iwate Prefecture, Japan
The overwhelming density of cherry trees in this park—more than 10,000 lining a 1.4-mile pathway along the Kitakami River—certainly gives this festival, located in the north of the island Honshu in Japan, top marks. Add in river cruises, winding waterside strolls, and nighttime lantern viewing, and this may well be the most romantic of all cherry blossom celebrations. As the country's annual Children's Day (May 5) draws closer, hundreds of colorful koinobori (carp-shaped cloth flags) are strung across the river. When wind passes through them, the carp appear to be swimming upstream—a symbol of strength and perseverance. Don't Miss: A horse-drawn carriage ride through a tunnel of blooming trees along the riverfront ($5 for adults, $2 for children under 12, and free for children under three).
When to Go:
The festival period has not been set as of press time. In 2010, the cherry blossom festival ran from April 15 through May 5. The blooms are expected to peak in late April.
Where to Stay:
Conveniently located near the Kitakami rail station, the Hotel Route-Inn Kitakami-Ekimae is just a 15-minute walk to the riverfront. And this is one hotel where you may not mind getting the final bill, which you'll receive as an intricately folded piece of origami. Doubles from $150,

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