The Japanese Buddhist concept of mono no aware, or the ephemeral nature of beauty, is embodied in the bloom of the cherry blossoms – such an amazing bloom which then falls beautifully, says Tokyo-born Yoshie Furusawa, who has worked with Bunnik Travel Group for 18 years, bunniktours.com.au
Generally, the cherry blossom (sakura) season starts in southern Japan and runs up to Hokkaido into the north, so if you're on a tour in March or April, you should be able to capture the blossoms in varying degrees of bloom. This year, Tokyo's cherry blossoms are forecast to begin blooming on March 18. You can follow their progress online, see japan-guide.com/sakura
Aside from cherries, plum blossoms (ume) are also quite picturesque and can be seen ahead of the cherry blossoms at the start of spring, usually between mid-February and mid-March. Afterwards, autumn is just as spectacular right across Japan, best in late October and late November. The cities of Hakone, Takayama, Hiroshima and Osaka are amazing for autumn colours.
There are blossoming cherry trees in most areas of Tokyo, however some of the best-known viewing sites are the Edo-period Imperial Palace's East Gardens and the riverside Sumida Park. Yes, it does get crowded. One of my favourite places is the Imperial Palace, Chidorigafuchi, while for night viewing, try the illuminated streets of Tokyo Midtown, Roppongi Hills or Ueno Park. In Kyoto, the Philosopher's Path is a hidden gem – it's named for an ancient philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, who used to walk this path and meditate. Also, the famous Bamboo Forest is only one part of the Arashiyama district, which includes the sprawling Tenryu-ji Zen temple is considered to have one of Kyoto's finest gardens, and is excellent for cherry blossom and autumn displays.
Two of the most underrated viewing places that come straight to mind are Matsumoto and Himeji Castles, where cherry blossoms can be seen without the huge crowds. In Tokyo, Shinjuku gyoen is one of the largest parks in the city and collaborates with the amusement park Yomiuri Land for a spectacular night display of the blossoms, yomiuriland.com
The sakura festival has an array of food created around cherry blossoms, which includes things like cookies, milk pudding and rice balls all infused with cherry blossom, and sakura mochi, a pink rice cake with a sweet, red-bean centre, wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf. People bring hanami bento to eat beneath the trees – it must be brightly coloured, with pink, red and orange foods. Try the three-coloured hanami dango (sweet dumpling).