Last chance to be first to enjoy Japan’s 2014 cherry blossom season

In Okinawa, the pink beauties are now in full bloom. Here’s where to see them before they’re gone

Cherry blossom season in Japan generally begins in late March.

But you don’t have to wait that long to check out the year’s first blossoms.

Travelers eager for an early look at Japan’s national flower — the cherry blossom (sakura) — can head for Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost prefecture. Thanks to Okinawa’s warmer temps, the pretty bell-like flowers start appearing on cherry trees from mid-January to mid-February.

Sakura festivals are held all over Okinawa, allowing families to take part in “hanamai,” or flower viewing.

Blooming periods vary year to year and the season is short.

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Though the year’s cherry blossom party is already drawing to a close in some parts of the prefecture, there are still places where you can check out sakura in their full, pink glory.

Cherry blossom viewing is a national pastime in Japan. Millions turn out to admire the flowers’ brief appearance every year. Among the best is the Naha Sakura Matsuri cherry blossom festival, which runs from February 12-16 in Yogi Park in Naha City. Naha is the capital of Okinawa and the largest city in the prefecture. 

Yogi Park is 15 minutes from Naha airport. There are nearly 400 cherry blossom trees along the river, making it a great place for a walk if you can manage to pull your eyes away from your camera.

Also in Naha, the Manko Sakura Matsuri cherry blossom festival will take place from February 8-9 at Manko Park

For festival and other details, check out Okinawa’s official tourism website.

A round-trip flight from Tokyo International Airport to Naha Airport on the main island typically runs anywhere from  $800-$1,000 on major airlines All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL). 

Low-cost carriers flying to Okinawa’s main island are: ANA’s Peach Aviation, JAL’s Jetstar Japan and Skymark Airlines

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Why is the season so short? 

The problem with planning a trip to see Japan’s cherry blossoms is that you can’t schedule nature. Adding to their allure, the blooms of the cherry tree don’t stick around for long. 

Most blossoms are only on show for a week, some even less if the weather is bad. Wind and rain can wreak havoc on the delicate flowers.

The blossoms appear on the trees before the leaves come in, giving the trees their rosy/white hue. 

To Japanese, the short blooming period of the sakura signifies that winter has come to an end and spring is on its way. Philosophically speaking, sakura are a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life.  

It’s a culture the Japanese have long been happy to export abroad.

For instance, since 1935 Washington, D.C. has held its own annual Cherry Blossom Festival, made possible by a gift from Tokyo. Back in 1912, the Japanese capital sent 3,000 sakura trees to the United States capital as a symbol of the two nations’ friendship.

That friendship, of course, went temporarily sour and the two nations ended up at war. During World War II, cherry blossoms were associated with the kamikaze pilots who sacrificed themselves for their nation. 

By all accounts, cherry blossoms are a bittersweet affair. Especially if you miss them.

 More on CNN: Okinawa: Which island is for you? 

Originally published February 2013, updated February 2014. 

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