The start of spring in Japan is all about the sakura, or cherry blossoms. From hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties to cherry blossom-flavored drinks (not to mention those famous Japanese KitKats)—it’s hard to escape the sakura mania during March and April.
There’s no shortage of ways to have fun on a beautiful spring day that don’t involve sitting around on a blue tarp drinking and gawping at the fleeting flowers.
There’s got to be more when it comes to spring in Japan than cherry blossoms, right? After a barrage of events that our social contracts oblige us to attend—bonenkai (year-end party) and shinnenkai (New Year’s party) we’re looking at you—we’re tired of socializing.
Do we really need to brave the cold by gathering underneath cherry trees while peppering forced conversation with expressions of the obvious? Statements like “Kirei desu ne (the flowers sure are pretty)” and “Samui desu ne (it sure is cold)” seem to make up the bulk of all small talk this time of year.
If celebrating the natural cycle of rebirth in Japan by cramming hundreds of people on electric blue tarps to watch pink petals is just too much for you to bear this year, here are five seasonal activities to do this spring that don’t involve hanami.
1. Sample new sake
Is the allure of free alcoholic beverages the only reason why you begrudgingly RSVP to the company hanami party year after year? This spring, skip the middleman and head straight to the source of free-flowing alcohol and imbibe to your heart’s delight.
Experience the labor and tradition of Japan’s national drink nihonshu (sake) at a local kurabiraki, the first opening of a sake storehouse. You’ll know it’s time for kurabiraki when you see sugidama (ball made from sprigs of Japanese cedar) hanging from the eaves—a sign that business is ready with a new season of sake for the year. The events are marked by festivals where visitors can taste a variety of freshly made sake and limited-edition brews. Fukuoka is famous for its large number of kurabiraki.
Here are are a few kurabiraki to try this spring:
- 12th Annual Nakameguro Washu Fes in Tokyo (March 28 & 29)
- Denbeegura Kuramatsuri in Kagoshima (April 25 & 26)
2. Pick strawberries
It’s hard to pinpoint strawberry season in Japan. After all, this red fruit is synonymous with Christmas cake and other winter confectioneries. However, 30 years ago, strawberries in winter were practically unheard of in Japan. They were strictly a spring fruit grown from April to June until Japanese farmers perfected a way to simulate spring year-round.
Strawberry farms across Japan open their greenhouse doors to the public in the springtime for ichigo gari (strawberry picking), when you can pick and eat an unlimited amount of strawberries within a set time. Japan’s biggest producer of strawberries is Tochigi Prefecture, home to the small yet sweet Tochi Otome variety. Not to be forgotten is Fukuoka, Japan’s second-largest producer.
Here are some places to try your hand at strawberry picking this spring:
- Yoshimura Strawberry Park in Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture (March to early May) — Map
- Natura Hino in Hino, Shiga Prefecture (until May 6) — Map
- Yokamon Ichigo in Ukiha, Fukuoka Prefecture (until mid-May) — Map
- Yasuhara Strawberry Farm in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture (until mid-May) — Map
- Kishigawa Sightseeing Strawberry Picking Association in Kinokawa, Wakayama Prefecture (until mid-May) — Map
3. Forage for wild greens
Even if you’re not brave enough to eat your findings, there’s still an adventure to be had in exploring the woodlands of Japan. Bring gloves, scissors, a bag for collecting what you find, insect repellent, bells and spray to ward off bears, and a compass or GPS device. Dress appropriately—cover your limbs, wear a hat and put on some sturdy hiking boots.
Here are a few locales for you to go on a foraging adventure:
- Sansai picking and hiking in Hiroshima (April 10-May 31, no tours Sundays)
- Tourist Farm Fruit Village in Kimitsu, Chiba Prefecture (end of March to May)
4. Go hiking
Perhaps the best way to avoid the crowds during hanami season is to take a hike—literally.
There’s no shortage of hiking trails in Japan. It is a nation covered in mountains perfect for outdoor adventures, after all. During spring, it’s best to remember that cedar pollen is out and about all over Japan, usually lasting through to early May. This can be hell for those who suffer from hay fever, so keep that in mind when planning your hike.
Many mountains on a beautiful spring day will be peppered with cute vegetation buds and blooming flowers. However, we don’t recommend trying to climb Mount Fuji during this time as it’s still covered with snow! As always, take precautions and prepare properly with suitable hiking gear.
Here are some of Japan’s best mountains for spring hiking:
- Mount Takao in Hachioji, Tokyo
- Mount Yoshino in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture
- Mount Shibutsu in Tone, Gunma Prefecture
- Mount Yoneyama in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture
- Mount Aso in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture
5. Dig for clams
If you’re craving a bit of “vitamin sea” in the springtime, try your hand at shiohigari, or clam digging.
Digging for asari (littleneck clams) is an extremely popular activity for couples and families in Japan and you’ll see no shortage of them at the beach this time of year. Be sure to check out the tide levels before you go as most spots open for digging a few hours before and after low tide.
Bring a shovel, pail, gloves, strainer, freezer packs, and a cooler box, along with a set of spare clothes. If you don’t have these things on hand, you can easily pick them up at a ¥100 shop, but any popular beach location for digging will have equipment for sale.
Littleneck clams are rich in calcium and vitamin B12. Add them to miso soup or rice in your cooker for a delicious and nutritious meal.
Try some clamming at these spots this year:
- Marine Park in Kanagawa (March to mid-Sep.)
- Futtsu Beach in Chiba (March 8-July 26)
- Yoshida Beach in Aichi (April 9-June 21)
- Shinmaiko Shiohigari Jyo in Hyogo (April 18-June 28)
Whether you love the outdoors or prefer low-key activities, there’s no shortage of ways to have fun on a beautiful spring day that don’t involve sitting around on a blue tarp drinking and gawping at the fleeting flowers.
Japan’s love for cherry blossoms, however, can ultimately prove irresistible and the avoidance of social obligations may prove futile. You may, in fact, just end up attending a hanami party on your way back from one of our suggested outings.
If so, be sure to check our interactive Sakura Forecast Map on GaijinPot Travel as subtle changes in temperature can delay or hasten the bloom of cherry blossoms—a sure way to disrupt your plans. If you miss your chance for a hanami altogether, just stock up on limited edition sakura beer cans and snacks from Don Quijote and cry silently at home. Same difference.
How do you get your hanami fix? Let us know your favorite ways to enjoy spring in Japan in the comments!
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