The month of March in Japan is about catching the famed cherry blossom if you can, visiting a shrine on Girls’ Day, and indulging in conceptual fashion shopping
Say the words ‘Spring’ and ‘Tokyo’ and one particular image will invariably come to mind: a sea of trees covered in candyfloss-pink sakura cherry blossom. The photogenic blooms, which burst into pink flower towards the end of March, are definitely among the most memorable attractions during any springtime visit to the capital.
However, bearing in mind the unpredictability of their precise arrival date (a national forecast team monitors the ‘cherry blossom front’ as it edges up the country), it’s just as well that March is always packed with plenty of other distractions.
It’s all about girls on 3 March. Hinamatsuri, or Girls’ Day, is when young girls are given traditional Japanese dolls to display in their home, before dressing up in their best rainbow-bright kimono and attending events at local shrines. A good place to soak up the atmosphere is Meiji Jingu, perhaps the most elegant of the city’s Shinto shrines, located in the middle of a dense green forest just behind the chaotic street-fashion crowds of Harajuku Station. The shrine offers an unexpected introduction to Harajuku, an area more famous for its trend-triggering teen tribes and cult street fashion than its spiritual heritage.
Fashion fever also hits Tokyo in the month of March, with a coterie of fashionistas descending on the capital for Japan Fashion Week, from 17 to 22 March. Fashion-loving visitors should stay one step ahead of the game by visiting the latest store openings in Tokyo – among them, the first standalone flagship in Harajuku from Christian Dada, whose punky deluxe creations by designer Masanori Morikawa have seduced countless fans, including Lady Gaga. And then there’s the latest venture by the iconic Issey Miyake label: the concept store Reality Lab, which showcases the work of five young designers in a futuristic space in the Aoyama district, designed by architect Tokujin Yoshioka.
March also marks one of the highlights of the city’s contemporary art calendar: Art Fair Tokyo. The largest annual art event in Japan, this year it includes artists from 97 Japanese and overseas galleries, and is held in the sprawling Tokyo International Forum, from 7 to 9 March. A tip: make a beeline for G-plus, a new section focusing on the edgiest and most influential of Japan’s independent modern galleries, such as Tomio Koyama Gallery and Scai the Bathhouse.
Those who prefer more intimate exhibitions are also spoilt for choice, with gems such as Tea and Beauty in the atmospheric traditional confines of one of the city’s best-kept cultural secrets: The Japan Folk Crafts Museum, running until 23 March.
When the cherry blossoms finally do make their appearance, follow the crowds of locals by camping out under the trees in parks across the city with a picnic (for a culinary treat, choose a bento box from the basement confectionary depachika sections in a department store). But if the cherry blossoms still haven’t arrived, don’t despair. Instead, head to the elegant Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, in Nihonbashi, and order a sakura-themed cocktail at the bar (cherry-blossom-themed tipples are served throughout March and April). Perhaps pick a Sakura Garden, a champagne-based concoction jazzed up with a pickled sakura leaf, or maybe a Sakura Lady, an elegant sake-infused cocktail, which, the perfect shade of cherry-blossom pink, is served in a martini glass.
Console yourself with the fact that sipping a cherry blossom cocktail at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo is likely to be a significantly warmer and more comfortable experience than sitting under a tree in any Tokyo park.
Danielle Demetriou, a former London journalist, lives in Tokyo and contributes to local and international travel and lifestyle publications