Japan’s cherry blossom season is about way more than just pretty trees. Known as sakura, this fleeting spring phenomenon is celebrated and cherished across the nation with hanami parties. And while the blossom may be the main attraction, food and drink play an equally important part, not only at hanami parties but in sakura as a whole.
From eels and octopus to rice cakes and beer, visiting Japan during the cherry blossom season allows you to sample cuisine that’s exclusive to sakura. Here’s how to chow down like a local when the pink leaves start to bloom:
Go beyond Tokyo’s sushi scene
Ueno Park is a must-see location during sakura.
If you find yourself in Tokyo during sakura, make your way to Ueno Park in the city center. Conveniently located right next to Ueno Station, the picture-perfect park is home to both the Tokyo National Museum and the Tokyo art museum and is easily one the best spots in the city to enjoy sakura’s delicate pink hue. After museum hopping, treat yourself to some sakura mochi (cherry blossom rice cake) under your favorite tree. This delicious little treat, which is wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom tree leaf, gets its distinctive pink color from strawberry jam. They’re available at most convenience stores and bakeries, and its sweetness is the perfect contrast to the sour umeboshi (ume pickled plum chips). Sour and salty in nature, these chips can be eaten by themselves or used as a filling in rice balls.
Drink and snack with the locals
Take your sakura snacks to the blossom.
When the sun goes down, head to an izakaya (a local Japanese pub). Cramped, noisy, and full of heady and delicious smells, you are pretty much guaranteed a memorable time at any of these traditional bars. Izakaya’s let you take a break from sweet flavors of sakura with snacks such as takenoko (bamboo shoots). You’ll find bamboo shoots in a whole host of Japanese spring dishes, such as takenoko gohan (bamboo shoot rice). With mild flavors, the bamboo shoot rice is fried with tofu and mushrooms thus making this traditional dish even more wholesome and delicious. Wash it down with some Haru Saku Kaori spring beer whose cherry blossom flavor never fails to hit the spot.
Discover Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital.
Of course, Tokyo is not the only city to bask in cherry blossoms, so jump on a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. The train covers an impressive 450 km in barely two hours and puts you right in the heart of Japan’s ancient capital, which is a sharp departure from Tokyo. Here, the hustle and bustle are replaced by calm while Tokyo’s skyscrapers are swapped with traditional wooden Japanese homes. Explore the city’s numerous sacred shrines and temples before sampling some ikanago no kugini (young Japanese eels), which is a specialty in the Hyogo Prefecture and Kansai region of Japan. Ikanago are young Japanese sand eels which are only caught between February and March, making them highly sought after during sakura. Gently seasoned with soy sauce and rice wine, the eels are cooked to the point of caramelization.
Sample Osaka’s famous takoyaki
Takoyaki is an Osaka delicacy.
The next stop on your gastronomic sakura tour should be the glittering city of Osaka, which is just 30 minutes from Kyoto. Upon arrival, head straight to Dotonbori, a loud, noisy, and colorful area that’s filled with several clashing and delicious aromas. Entering Dotobori is an assault on your senses, but you’ll acclimatize quickly. Start with Osaka’s famous takoyaki (octopus balls). The dish consists of golf-ball sized batter balls, each stuffed with a piece of octopus before being deep fried. Once the takoyaki achieves a satisfactory golden brown color, it’s served with a range of delicious toppings such as Japanese mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce, seaweed flakes, cheese, and the light-as-a-feather bonito fish flake shavings. You’ll find a cup or two of sakurayu (cherry blossom tea) perfectly complements the takoyaki’s salty flavor. The tea is a created by infusing seeping pickled cherry blossoms with hot water. It looks as beautiful as it tastes. For desert, opt for an ichigo daifuku (strawberry rice cakes), which is made from glutinous rice, sweet red or white azuki bean paste (called anko) and a whole strawberry.