Cherry blossoms herald arrival of spring

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Okinawa

Now is the perfect time for Americans on the island to experience the Japanese custom of cherry blossom viewing.

The cherry blossoms, or sakura, in Okinawa are the earliest bloomers in Japan, with the spring-like weather in January and February causing an explosion of color in parks and wooded areas.

Around the end of January, sakura start blooming in the northern Yanbaru region on Okinawa. The cherry front then moves down from the northern mountainous region to the southern part of the island, finally reaching remote islands within a couple of weeks. Cherry blossom festivals are held in various locations on the island from late January through mid-February.

Cherry blossom festivals not only feature flowery trees, but they also provide entertainment, including beauty pageants, live music and dance performances. You also might have the chance to sample free awamori (Okinawan distilled liquor) and purchase delicious food at various food booths. Most of festivals light up the cherry blossoms in the evening.

The prominent cherry blossom tree on Okinawa is the Hikanzakura (Taiwan Cherry), which features bright deep pink to reddish blossoms, much different from pale pinkish Somei Cherry that is commonplace on Japan’s mainland.

The Hikanzakura doesn’t shed its petals quickly, unlike the trees from the mainland. It withstands wind, rain and keeps blooming for up to a month. Okinawans usually enjoy viewing them while strolling along a path surrounded by cherry trees. Mainlanders enjoy the blossoms with a hanami (blossom viewing) party under the cherry trees.
 
In Yaese Town, you can enjoy a really pleasant stroll along the stairway surrounded by numerous cherry blossoms as you make your way to the top of Mount Yaedake. There, you can see Shuri Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a backdrop vista of the Kerama Islands and blue sea. And in Nakijin, you can see another World Heritage site, Nakijin Gusuku (castle), filled with cherry blossoms beautifully lit up in the evening.

So head out and help usher in Japan’s first cherry blossoms of the year. And don’t forget your camera!

Shooting that picture-perfect blossom

Stripes Okinawa

In Japan, no foliage is considered more photogenic than the cherry blossom. With Okinawa in full bloom, don’t miss this chance snap off some beautiful shots.

But how do you get that perfect photo? Here are some ideas about how to take good photos of cherry blossoms so that you can share the beauty with friends and family.

Many people want to take beautiful pictures of cherry blossoms, but it can be more difficult than you think if you are not prepared. It is good to first decide whether you want to take nice flower photos, atmosphere photos or photos of cherry blossoms that will include people. This way you can plan the best time, place and opportunity for your photo shoot.

There are various situations and opportunities for taking cherry blossom photos, depending on the time, weather and place.  And also, the photos you take can be different from what you see at the scene, like the color and brightness.

For the best results, photograph the flowers in the morning light. The morning light usually gives you a more gentle light which makes good exposure for your photo image. The clearer air in the morning – and at sunset – also makes your picture more clear and crispy.

If there is a strong wind, try increasing your ISO so that you can obtain faster shutter speed to catch the moving flowers.

Overcast weather can create less contrast and sometimes capture the smooth texture of the flower. Try to find a dark green tree or some kind of dark color as the background of your cherry blossom photos so that the flowers will stand out in front.

When shooting bright white flowers, your photos may come out darker than you expect. Try changing your white-balance settings manually to get the color just right. Try to make your photo little lighter than usual.

Use a unique background. If you go to major “hanami,” or blossom-viewing spots, you will see many Japanese having a good time with friends and family. Capture some of the people in your cherry blossom photos, making it a cultural piece.  
 
Some of the locations are open for night sakura, or cherry blossom, viewing with the area all lit up. Remember to bring your tripod with you. The blossoms lit up by lanterns will make for some unique and special photos.

There are no rules for taking your favorite pictures –  be creative and enjoy nature while you’re doing it.

Cherry Blossom Festivals on Okinawa

MOTOBU YAEDAKE CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL: Jan. 21-Feb. 5; These are the earliest cherry blossoms in Japan; 7,000 cherry trees are expected to be in bloom on Mount Yaedake, Motobu-cho, about 20 minute drive from Nago city; Address 921 Namizato, Motombu-cho, Okinawa 905-0222; 0980-47-3461 (Japanese); www.motobu-ka.com/ (Japanese).
   
NAKIJIN GUSUKU CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL: Jan. 28-Feb. 12, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Candles and illuminations will light up the path and there will be traditional entertainment and more; Address 5101 Imadomari, Nakijin village, Kunigami-gun, Okinawa 905-0428; 400 yen adult, 300 yen ages 6-17, free ages 5 & younger; 0980-56-2256; www.nakijin.jp/EnglishSite/43.html.
   
NAGO SAKURA MATSURI (CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL): Jan. 28-29, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Nago Chuo Koen (5511 Nago, Nago city Okinawa 905-0012), Sakura Koen (1-1922 Oohigasi, Nago City 905-0016) Jyujiro Oodori (1 Agarie, Nago City, 905-0021), Nago Fishing Port (3-5-16 Gusuku Nago Okinawa 905-0013); eisa dance, brass band, taiko (Japanese drums), folk songs and live performance, parade and more.

YAESE CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL: Feb. 5; 500 cherry trees at Yaese Town Park are expected to be in full bloom and be illuminated with 170 table lamps with paper shades between 6-9:30 p.m. from late January through early February.

NAHA CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL: Feb. 8-12; Cherry trees at Yogi Park are expected to be in full bloom. Potted garden plants will be on sale at the venue; Yorimiya 1-1, Naha City (about 10-minute walk from Asato Station); 098-855-2552 (Japanese).

Cherry Blossom Tours

NAGO CHERRY BLOSSOM TOUR: Jan. 28 (Sat.) 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Adults $23; Children (3-11) $16; Children (0-2) FREE; For more info, contact MCCS Tours+ at MCCS Tours+ at DSN 646-3502 (OFF BASE 098-971-3502) or DSN 623-6344 (OFF BASE 098-969-6344) or DSN 637-2744 (OFF BASE 098-911-5111, then 637-2744)

NAGO CHERRY BLOSSOM TOUR: Jan. 28 & 29 (Sat. & Sun.); For more info, contact Kadena ITT at DSN: 966-7333 or Cell/Off: 036-868-2226

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