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 and snacks to baked goods with cherry blossoms sprinkled on top to cherry blossom-themed makeup and even sakura-infused soba noodles (not to mention those famous Japanese KitKats) — it’s hard to escape cherry blossom mania during March and April.
There’s got to be more when it comes to spring in Japan than cherry blossoms, right? Let’s face it: after a barrage of events that your social contracts oblige you to attend — like Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties, bonenkai (year-end party) and shinnenkai (New Year’s party) celebrations, Valentine’s Day and White Day gift exchanges, etc. — do we really need to brave the cold by gathering underneath cherry trees with the same people 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 around this time of year.
Well, if the annual ritual of celebrating the natural cycle of rebirth in Japan by cramming hundreds of people on electric blue tarps to watch pink petals in the wind (and it will get windy) is just too much for you to bear this year, then here are five seasonal activities for you 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 shinshu (new brew of sake) matsuri where visitors can taste a variety of freshly made sake and limited edition brews, as well. Fukuoka is famous for its large number of kurabiraki.
Here are are a few kurabiraki to try this spring:
- 8th Bungo Oono Megurukura in Oita (March 17)
- Fushimi Sake Festival in Kyoto (March 23)
- 12th Annual Nakameguro Washu Fes in Tokyo (March 30 & 31)
- Tenryou Shuzou Kurabiraki in Gifu (March 31)
- Ginza Sake Tasting Spring Festival in Tokyo (April 13)
- Nagano Meijyo Kurabiraki in Nagano (April 27)
- Denbeegura Kuramatsuri in Kagoshima (April 28 & 29)
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 means 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, the prefecture that is Japan’s second-largest producer and home to the king of strawberries, Amao.
What to do with all the strawberries you picked? Dip in condensed milk; make ichigo daifuku (a whole strawberry surrounded by red bean paste, wrapped in soft mochi); make fruit sandwiches (white bread filled whipped cream and sliced strawberries).
Here are some places to try your hand at ichigo gari 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
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; after all, it’s a nation covered in mountains and forests perfect for foraging. Some of the first sansai (wild greens) to make an appearance in the spring are the seven herbs that make up nanakusa gayu, the rice porridge that is eaten during the Japanese New Year on Jan. 7 to welcome good health and prosperity.
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 get out on a foraging adventure:
- Sansai picking and hiking (operated by the Jinseki Kogen Hometown Tourism Promotion Council) in Hiroshima (March 16-April 24 — no tours Sundays)
- Tourist Farm Fruit Village in Kimitsu, Chiba Prefecture (end of March to mid-April)
4. Attend a hina matsuri
You might know the hina matsuri event by one of its alternative names, like “Dolls’ Festival” or “Girls’ Day.” Whatever you choose to call it, hina matsuri is a traditional celebration of #girlpower. In fact, it’s part of a seasonal event called momonosekku (dolls or peach festival) with deep roots in the Japanese Imperial family.
Unlike summer festivals that are filled with food and dancing, hina matsuri are impressive and gorgeous displays of art that show off Japanese handicrafts like temari (decorative ornamental balls made from kimono scraps ) and hina ningyo (dolls that represent members of the Japanese Imperial family). Hina dolls, the “star” of these events, are fabulously ornate dolls given to young girls of a household. While the meaning of these dolls has evolved from objects that protect young women from sickness and calamity to toys and now decorations, there’s no denying the beauty in the handcrafted displays — some of which can cost hundreds of thousands of yen!
Here are some places to pay your respects to the dolls on March 3:
- Hotel Gajoen Hinamatsuri in Meguro, Tokyo
- Katsuura Grand Hinamatsuri in Katsuura, Chiba Prefecture
- Yanagawa Hinamatsuri in Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture
- Hina no Tsurushi Kazari in Izu Inatori, Shizuoka Prefecture
- Big Awa Katsuura Hinamatsuri in Tokushima, Tokushima Prefecture
- Kasafuku in Sakata, Yamagata 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 you want to go around the low point. 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 to 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 9-Sep. 4)
- Yoshida Beach in Aichi (March 31-June 17)
- Shinmaiko Shiohigari Jyo in Hyogo (April 13-June 30)
Whether you love the outdoors or just prefer low-key activities, there’s no shortage of ways to have fun on a beautiful spring day in Japan — that don’t involve sitting around on a blue tarp drinking and gawping at the fleeting cherry blossoms.
Japan’s love for cherry blossoms, however, can ultimately prove irresistible for you or the avoidance of social obligations at this time futile. You may, in fact, just end up attending a hanami party after all on your way back from one of our suggested outings.
If so, be sure to triple check the sakura forecast as subtle changes in temperature can delay or hasten the bloom of cherry blossoms, a sure way to disrupt your plans. But, don’t fret — even if you miss the fluttering of pale pink petals in the wind, your nearest convenience store or supermarket will welcome you with plenty of snacks and drinks adorned with Japan’s most beloved flower. You could even stock up on limited edition beer cans and potato chips to show your love of spring in Japan all-year round!
How do you get your hanami fix? Let us know your favorite ways to enjoy spring in Japan in the comments!