During spring sakura season, Himeji Castle’s cherry blossom viewing parties and nighttime illuminations are one of the best events in all of Japan. In this post, we’ll offer some hanami at Himeji tips and our thoughts on the Himeji Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you combined a frat party and a beloved world heritage site? I’m guessing no, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a blast at Himeji Castle! While comparing a Japanese hanami party to a frat party is a bit strong, I have to admit that I was a bit taken aback when I saw a keg of beer being wheeled out onto the lawn in front of Himeji Castle.
It’s just something of an odd juxtaposition to see drunken merriment in front of a stoic and significant complex. However, I got over this pretty quickly and embraced this scene, which was one of the more unique cultural experiences I’ve had in Japan. Here’s a look at the hanami parties and Himeji Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival…
For starters, I must admit that we were not at Himeji Castle for the hanami parties. We were here, naturally, for photos. The first week in April, Himeji Castle hosts the Himeji Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival.
During this event, visitors have access to the Nishi-no-Maru (West Bailey) Garden for hanami parties, free of charge. This garden is not normally open to the public at night, and it offers an exceptional ambiance as the cherry trees and Himeji Castle are illuminated.
This rare nighttime illumination–and photographing it–was the main motivation for our visit. (We actually made a day trip from Osaka just to see this, commuting a little over 2 hours each way–we’ll cover more of that, and the experience of touring Himeji Castle in a future post.)
Having a chance to experience a hanami party firsthand was just icing on the cake. To further enhance the ambiance during the Himeji Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival, there are concerts held in West Bailey Garden each night.
The culmination of this all is an experience that offers a window into Japanese culture. Not only do you have Himeji Castle, one of the most significant historical complexes in all of Japan, but you have that environment serving as a host to modern Japanese traditions.
It may seem like an odd juxtaposition, as I suggested above, but it really ends up being a wonderful display of past merging with present.
In terms of tips, if you want a prime spot under the cherry trees, you need to arrive early. These spots were being claimed around 2-3 hours before sunset on the day we visited. There was still plenty of room towards the center of the lawn, but clearly spots under the trees are most coveted.
We witnessed all sorts of hanami parties at Himeji Castle, from ones catered by professional staffs for (what appeared to be?) a business retreat to students gathered on blue tarps with cheap beer and buckets of KFC fried chicken. For what it’s worth, the vast majority skewed towards the latter end of the spectrum. Cheap beer and bottles of wine were all over the place, as were buckets of KFC and bento boxes scattered amongst young people on tarps.
There were a few nicer straw mats and visitors with nicer spreads of food, mostly brought by older couples who might also have a bottle of win. These parties were vastly outnumbered, though, by young people with stockpiles of cheap booze and chicken.
If you do plan on staking out a spot early, bring games. We noticed several people playing badminton in the open area of the lawn, or sitting on their tarps playing card games. This seems like a good–and acceptable–way to kill time.
Another tip is to be sociable. While Japanese culture often calls for people to be quiet and reserved, alcohol is the social lubricant that can cut through the most stoic of demeanors.
We saw a lot of revelry, and visitors there for the hanami parties were incredibly outgoing, even with us. Remember, these hanami parties are occasions for celebration, so there tends to be more merriment at them.
We left before the late evening hours, so things could have gotten ‘out of hand’ later, but nothing we witnessed in any way indicated to me that the Himeji Castle hanami parties were less than family friendly. In that regard, these are absolutely nothing like a frat party. Even though the alcohol is flowing, there’s nothing raucous or seedy about the events. So fret not if you have kids.
Overall, the Himeji Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival was an incredibly memorable experience. It may sound odd on paper, or even that the alcohol and revelry would dishonor the cultural legacy of Himeji Castle, but I did not find that to be the case in any way, whatsoever. Rather, opening up the castle lawn hanami presents a bridge between past and present, historical legacies and modern day customs. It was a beautiful event that I would highly recommend to anyone visiting this area of Japan. Even though it required a 4-hour roundtrip commute from Osaka, we are both incredibly glad that we took a day to do this. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
If you’re planning a visit to Japan that includes the Kyoto/Osaka/Himeji or anywhere else in the Kansai region, please check out the hundreds of other Japan planning posts you can peruse for more ideas of fun things to do during your trip!
Have you visited Japan during sakura season? What about a hanami party? What did you think of the experience? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Does seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan interest you? Would you recommend it to a first-timer visiting Japan? Any thoughts or tips of your own to add? Any questions about what we’ve covered here? Hearing about your experiences—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!