Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and James Wong join the lively cherry blossom celebrations taking place across Japan this spring.
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There's one season that's more anticipated and loved
than any other on the planet - spring.
So, for the first time ever, Springwatch is travelling
to a country where they celebrate this prettiest of natural events
like nowhere else on Earth.
Hello, and welcome to Japan!
We've come here to experience one of the most spectacular,
the most anticipated and, as you can see, most celebrated
springtime events in the world -
the emergence of the sakura, Japan's cherry blossom.
We've come to Tokyo, one of the world's busiest cities,
to experience this explosion of pink, along with millions
of other locals and tourists that have also come here to celebrate
the start of spring.
And as spring erupts through Japan, we're going to follow it
step-by-step to explain this phenomenon in terms of the impact
that it has on all of the people, which you can see, and,
of course, the wildlife too.
We're going to explore sakura, in Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto
and its modern capital, Tokyo.
I'm going in search of an exquisite little bird
that I've never seen before,
and it absolutely loves cherry blossom.
It's a very busy tree but this tree at this time of year is a sugar factory.
While Chris is bird-watching, I'll be meeting some streetwise bees
making honey from the city's blossom.
Oh! That is so good.
And ethnobotanist James Wong has also joined us to explore
the cultural and spiritual links with sakura -
visiting the hidden Buddha on Mount Yoshino.
They are only on show to the public when the sakura are blossoming.
And, if all that isn't enough, we've just about crashed one
of the biggest nature festivals on the planet.
And I've heard, Michaela, that after dark, after a day of drinking sake,
-things can get really wild here.
So welcome to Springwatch in Japan.
It's cherry blossom time.
Welcome to Ueno Park in Tokyo, where blossom is in full bloom.
I've got to say, 1,200 trees here, Michaela,
and they are looking fantastic.
We're here to celebrate what has to be one of the most
hotly anticipated and, let's face it, prettiest festivals of spring in the world.
And you can follow what's going on live on our website,
not only in Japan, of course, but all across the UK.
Across Japan there are about a million cherry trees,
and as the blossom blooms, it marks the arrival of spring
in a sort of pink wave across the country from south to north.
The Japanese archipelago covers about 2,000 miles across 20 latitudes
so it takes the cherry blossom, or sakura, as it's called
here in Japan, about 15 weeks to make its appearance
throughout the country.
And it opens when daytime temperatures reach somewhere
between 17 and 20 degrees Centigrade.
What temperature do you think it is today?
-I'm quite hot. I'm a little bit overdressed.
-It's not 20 degrees.
-No, it's not.
-You feel the cold.
It's still quite chilly, to be quite honest with you.
Hey, listen, hold on to this map, will you? Let's sit down
and make ourselves comfortable here,
because I can show you how the blossom moves south to north across this archipelago.
So, it started down here on 14th January and, possibly,
the prediction says that it will end up here, on Hokkaido,
close to this little spot here on 9th May.
Now, at the moment we're in Tokyo, here, and, as you can see,
it's pretty much at its prime, but it isn't a simple
south to north relationship. There are a few little discrepancies
and we'll be talking about those later.
But every year is different.
And so, it's a real gamble as to which week you pick to come here.
Come here too early, ahead of the blossom,
come here too late and all you'll see is a carpet of pink.
I think we're spot-on here in Tokyo.
I mean, look at it! It's out in bloom, it's looking absolutely gorgeous.
How long do you think it's going to last?
Well, typically, it goes through a 14 day cycle from bud
to the petals on the ground.
At the moment, I'd say we were possibly on about day ten or 12.
There's still a few more buds to open but there are some that
are already shedding their petals.
We are at peak time. We've hit the mark on this occasion.
But so many people come here to celebrate this festival.
Tokyo is absolutely packed.
Everywhere you go in this park, people are staring up
at the pink blossom.
Hotels are booked months, if not a year, in advance.
It's a fantastic celebration of pink and spring.
It's quite heartening, isn't it?
Millions of people coming out in response to nature.
And millions of them do, not just here in Tokyo
but throughout Japan, and not just Japanese people, people come from overseas too.
That said, it's not just about humans,
it's not just about the blossom, it's about wildlife too,
because this time of year is also known as keichitsu -
the awakening of the creatures.
Japan's long string of Pacific islands
has an extraordinary climate range.
From mid-January, the cherry blossom, or sakura, as it's known,
starts to open in the southern islands where temperatures can
reach a balmy 20 degrees Celsius.
Whilst 2,000 miles away in Japan's far north,
the island of Hokkaido is still gripped by ice and snow.
Only found on Hokkaido, Japanese red-crowned cranes gather
to strengthen their social bonds,
in anticipation of their breeding season when spring finally arrives.
By late March, on the main island of Honshu, in the middle
of the country, spring is in its infancy.
Sakura is replacing the snow
but daytime temperatures are only just drifting into double figures,
and the blossom makes a welcome snack for the Japanese macaques.
But it's at the foot of the archipelago, on Okinawa,
where spring is well underway.
The subtropical waters of the Pacific are teeming
with life, fuelled by Japan's own Gulf Stream,
the Kuroshio Current.
These warm waters draw visitors, large and small,
throughout the year,
but in spring perhaps the most reliable are female green turtles
returning to lay their eggs.
And here is where it all begins.
The warm waters create warm air currents which hit the land,
triggering a wave of pink sakura to sweep up the country,
announcing the arrival of spring.
But, of course, accurately forecasting that journey isn't
as predictable as you might think.
And there's a good geographical reason for that.
There's a warm water current which typically helps spread
the blossom from south to north, but another factor is involved.
A range of mountains that runs down here and they shelter places
like Tokyo from the cold air coming off the Asiatic continental landmass,
which would come across here.
So Tokyo is sheltered.
However Kyoto, down here, no mountains, plenty of cold air
and it suffers from what I'm calling blossom lag.
I don't know what the Japanese for "blossom lag" is but I'm going to look it up.
I've introduced a whole new factor to this festival - blossom lag.
But, despite all that, preparations are still well underway.
So, James went to Nijo Castle, one of the most sacred places in the ancient city,
to look at the history of this spectacular festival.
GENTLE TRADITIONAL MUSIC
Surrounded by magnificent gardens, Kyoto's impressive Nijo Castle
was built over 400 years ago,
but the history of cherry blossom viewing, or hanami, as it's known,
dates back far further here in Japan's ancient capital,
with records going back as far as the eighth century.
But it wasn't always about cherry blossom.
Look at this spectacular plum blossom,
peaking just before the sakura come into flower.
It was originally this guy that the Japanese celebrated.
In fact, it was their national flower.
It was only changed to the sakura later because its blossoming
ties-in perfectly with spring rice planting.
Therefore, the success of the blossom was used to predict
the fortunes of the harvest.
As the symbolism grew, the aristocracy started planting
cherries in their own private gardens.
With the Emperor Saga popularising hanami in the ninth century
by having parties under the blossom at his Imperial Court,
here in Kyoto.
Then, after centuries of being celebrated,
in only the gardens of the elite, a very special
sakura was discovered.
And this is him right here. The somei-yoshino.
It's considered the most beautiful of all cherry blossom.
It's a hybrid that's discovered in the 19th century
and then massively propagated, cloned, so it's
and for that reason, this single variety makes up 80% of sakura trees in Japan.
And because it's a clone, it's showy blooms are guaranteed
to blossom at the same time as its neighbours,
providing the visual spectacle that is modern hanami.
Finally, a cherry tree for the masses.
Japan's adulation for this blossom brought with it
a commercial explosion.
The sakura season has become big business.
So I'm taking Michaela on a Kyoto shopping trip, where the streets
are quite literally dripping with sakura souvenirs.
We've come into the heart of Kyoto now, to the region they call Gion,
and it's where traditional and modern really do collide,
and there's not a single somei-yoshino cherry tree in sight.
That said, Michaela, there's blossom everywhere.
It's beautiful. It's so pink - and we should have a look!
And blossom is big business. BIG business.
The sakura season is worth billions and billions of dollars to the Japanese economy,
and March and April is the peak time where everyone's looking
for something with sakura in it, with it smelling of sakura,
or basically, something that's just pink!
These are pickled radish flavoured with sakura leaves.
OK. Let's give it a go. Taste that!
Oh! I quite like that.
That's a good taste.
I like the fact that here, Chris, look, we've got sort of sakura
season and Christmas all in one sort of cracker.
-The artwork is amazing!
-Look at the little tray that they put it on,
as if it's some sort of valuable watch or something like that,
not something you'd eat.
Look at this! They are presented like jewels!
Like valuable jewels.
Each of these is made by a different confectioner in Kyoto.
They deliver them in the morning and when they're sold in the evening, it's all over.
They've gone forever. And look at this one. It's perfect.
It's like a little blossom. I'd like one of these, please.
That's a sakura leaf,
sakura blossom and inside it's sticky, sweet rice,
all coming in a beautifully packaged box. Of course, it's pink!
So I think I'll have this, please.
This is where the packaging goes to like, er, Love Actually.
It's everything, the whole works.
Maybe just a little sprinkle of something in there.
If you've got a sweet tooth, the choice of things you could buy
in this supermarket is unbelievable and it all has a sakura theme.
I mean, look at that. That's sweet pink rice.
It's a box within a bag within a bag - and within the box are two of the most
beautiful sweets that I've ever seen in the whole world.
-Well, I'm very pleased with my purchase.
You know, there's a Japanese phrase which is that
the first bite is with the eye.
What they mean is, as soon as you see something,
you make a judgment of it.
Therefore, they're really keen on their presentation.
I'm very excited about trying these, I've got to tell you.
Look, come on, take your pick. These look absolutely remarkable.
They really... That is a work of art.
Right, I'm going for the more brightly coloured one.
GENTLE MUSIC PLAYS
I know all those sweets were beautifully presented but I have
to say, having tasted them, given the choice now,
-I think I'd prefer a chocolate bar.
-No, no, no, no.
The presentation, the presentation was immaculate. It was beautiful!
I love all those sort of clinical shops, everything laid out in tanks.
But it was too much packaging.
Beautiful, but way too much packaging.
It's time to talk blossom now, and of course, all of this
stuff isn't just thrown together willy-nilly.
This takes planning.
It does take planning, but how on earth do you plan a party
if you can't know the date?
If each year the timing of the blossom changes?
Well, as we know from Springwatch, nature has very much an objective
to run to its own schedule, so what we need now is a bit
of a science lesson. Join me as I go back to Kyoto
for a bit of blossom biology.
Let's be frank about it.
In this wonderful avenue of ancient trees at Nijo Castle,
things are still pretty brown at the moment.
And I'm no expert, but I'd say it's going to be a few more days
before this is transformed into an avenue of blossom.
But then the whole process is almost impossible to predict.
And the reason that it's almost impossible to predict is that it
comes down to the vagaries of nature and the weather.
You see, some of these cherry trees need to go through a process
called vernalisation. All sorts of plants do.
The seeds, bulbs and the trees themselves,
and it's all to do with chilling.
Some of these species need to be below freezing
for at least 1,200 hours.
Only then is there any chance at all that they might
open their buds and bloom.
So quite clearly, this tree here has gone through that
vernalisation process, and this one is fully open
and it's looking splendid.
HE SNIFFS And it's got a very delicate aroma.
And of course, the unpredictable nature of this generates a real
sense of anticipation.
And here, even in the rain now, people have got their brollies up
and their hoods up, but they're all standing here taking
photographs of this tree,
and I feel compelled to join in, I have to say.
That's very kind. Thank you very much. Thank you.
Look at that.
Kyoto, cherry blossom in bloom. Chris Packham.
Chris, you've gone all cheesy on us with your cherry blossom photo.
What do you mean, cheesy? I was just joining in. Everyone was taking photos!
I was just trying to become part of the festival and the culture.
You'll be getting a selfie stick next.
-I feel compelled to join in!
-I will not be getting a selfie stick.
-What do you want?
-This one's more appropriate.
The blossom matches the colour of your coat better.
There we are. Smile. Brilliant.
Thanks! As Chris was saying, the anticipation of the celebration
just adds to the excitement, but of course it's not
all left to chance.
There's a lot of time, effort and money that goes
into getting the timing of the sakura spot-on.
And as you can imagine here in Japan, technology plays its part.
So a few days ago I went to one of the weather agencies
here in Tokyo to see just how exact they can get their predictions.
This is the headquarters of WNI.
It's the largest private weather news agency in Japan.
As you can see, it's all very technical.
Lots of screens with maps and graphs and things on it.
Now, just to give you an idea of how important this whole operation is,
on one side of this room they monitor storms,
hurricanes and earthquakes, and on the other they monitor
the cherry blossom prediction.
And at this time of the year, that's just as important.
They look at temperature, wind conditions and light,
and they also rely heavily on input from the public, who send
in photographs of how their local blossom is progressing.
They can receive up to 3,000 photographs in just one day.
Analysing all that data is Yuri.
Yuri, it's so important for you to get it right.
Do you get nervous at this time of year?
SHE SPEAKS JAPANESE
Well, yes, I feel pressure because it's only one week that
people can see the beautiful sakura tree for a whole year,
so the pressure is on.
Is the bloom later this year?
SHE SPEAKS JAPANESE
It started blooming very early in Tokyo, but afterwards,
the temperature went down, and so it's now very slow,
and in Kyoto it's really late this year, unfortunately.
'Yuri explains that the buds go through seven stages
'before they blossom.
'Over in Kyoto, they've reached stage six,
'so theoretically, in three days, the blossoms should arrive.'
-Thank you so much, thank you.
CHRIS: Sakura forecasting may be a hi-tech affair today,
but traditionally it depended on a few expert individuals,
and the predictability of Japan's prized cherry tree,
the cloned somei-yoshino.
Now, over here, just here, is a cherry tree like no others.
It's more important than this cherry tree here,
and indeed this cherry tree and this cherry tree
because this is the indicator tree for Kyoto.
There are 90 indicator trees spread across Japan,
and it's these trees which determine whether the hanami season
will start here or not.
So, someone has to make that judgment,
and that person is in attendance this morning.
This is Mr Hatoka, and his job is to determine
whether this tree is bursting into bloom or not.
This job is a huge responsibility.
It involves recording the temperature
and checking the tree twice a day,
once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
And he needs at least five buds to have opened
before he can announce the start of Kyoto's sakura season.
No wonder he arrives early and works diligently
because trying to find just five open buds
in amongst this tree of thousands is quite tricky.
-Ah, here, just here. I see.
-Thank you, yeah.
-There were two flowers there.
Two flowers completely open, and a few others partially open.
'But is that enough?
'I'm dying to ask the million dollar question.'
Mr Hatoka, is today going to be the day?
HE SPEAKS JAPANESE
-Yes, he thinks.
-He thinks it is!
He thinks it is. He thinks it is! Yes!
-The man from Kyoto said yes.
-Was he right?
Well, of course he was right.
I wouldn't argue with an expert on that account.
But I was surprised that he announced the start so early,
because the first few partygoers are going to be partying
under trees with very little blossom on them.
I mean, we were there, weren't we?
-And it really wasn't like it is here.
-No, nothing like this.
This is absolutely gorgeous.
This is definitely the time to picnic and party.
And on that note, Chris, I have bought a bento box.
I mean, again, beautifully packaged. Look at that.
Shall we open it up?
I love these, though.
This is very different to our cheese and pickle sandwiches
that we get for our takeaway lunch.
Look at that.
They really are like the sort of things
that my mum would have put together in the 1960s
in a Tupperware container.
So this is the equivalent of
sort of white bread, jam and banana sandwiches.
Over here is some Angel Delight.
-I'm going to help myself to a little bit of veg.
-Have a carrot.
I am going to try some of this carrot.
It is interesting, though,
they do like a lot of colour in their bento boxes.
And they've certainly fulfilled that with this.
The other thing is that during the season, of course, they are sakura themed,
and they sell millions of these things.
They certainly do.
What do you reckon that is?
I think it's curd or nerd or something.
OK, well, this is definitely fish,
so I'm going to eat some of that.
I quite like bean curd. That's very me. I'm a bit of a tofu girl.
Well, the companies certainly make the most of the sakura season,
but then again, so does some of the wildlife,
as I found out a few days ago.
Now, you may be wondering why I'm sitting in a cafe in Tokyo
having what looks like a latte and a mini pizza
when surely I should be trying something more Japanese
like sushi and sake.
Well, let me tell you.
This is very Japanese because there's a very special,
local, highly sought-after ingredient used in this meal.
And it is this, honey.
And yes, you've guessed it,
at this time of the year, it's made from sakura.
Made by Tokyo's urban bees,
sakura honey only has a very short season.
So each year only a limited amount of this liquid gold is produced,
which means it's in high demand.
I've come to the fashionable Ginza district to meet Mr Tanaka,
the founder of the local honeybee project,
at one of his rooftop honey farms to see what all the buzz is about.
Wow, this is what you call hives at height.
Bees and a view of the city. It's fantastic.
-Mr Tanaka, hello.
-Nice to meet you.
-And you. And your bees.
-Can I come in?
-Slowly and slowly.
-Walk slowly and gently.
How many hives do you have here?
'Whilst the sakura season has only just started,
'the bees are already busy.'
This one you can clearly see that it's been out collecting pollen,
in those pollen sacs on its leg.
It must be quite difficult for them to fly with all that.
Yes, for me, two watermelons.
It's like us having two watermelons on your legs!
You can see that.
What species of bee do you have?
They are European bees? OK.
-So these are the workers.
They collect the pollen, they look after the brood.
-Ah, this is queen bee.
-Oh, yes, you can see.
You can clearly see that that's the queen bee. It's much bigger.
-There's only one queen in each hive.
-Laying all of the eggs.
Just a moment.
-Is that a baby bee?
-Oh, look at that!
-Happy birthday, Mrs Bee!
Oh, that's fantastic to see that.
Shall I hold it? OK.
I'm not going to upset the queen. I don't want to upset the queen.
So, why do you not use Japanese bees?
Western bees are creating honey.
So they produce more honey?
-They are better workers?
'Whilst the Japanese honeybees may not be as good at producing honey,
'they have some other pretty impressive skills,
'especially when faced with their nemesis,
'the Japanese giant hornet.
'It's the largest species of hornet in the world,
'and this aggressive predator can kill up to 40 honeybees a minute.
'However, the native bees have developed
'a successful defence mechanism called bee balling.
'When a hornet tries to invade the hive,
'several hundred bees form a ball around it
'and vibrate their flight muscles to produce heat.
'As the temperature rises, carbon dioxide levels rise too,
'basically cooking and suffocating the hornet
'without harming the bees.'
'It's rare for the European bees to protect themselves in the same way,
'so these high-flyers have their own man-made security system -
'a wire mesh cage letting the small bees in
'and keeping the large hornets out.'
How do you know that it's sakura honey?
-Open the hive...
-You can tell from the smell?
Oh, just put my finger in?
Oh, wow, wow, wow. OK.
Oh, I've got it all over there.
Oh, that is so good.
-That is so good!
-Really sweet. So that has in it sakura blossom?
Mmm, that is really nice,
-and it smells so floral, as well, doesn't it?
And that sakura fragrance captured in the honey can be smelt everywhere
at this time of year.
As it percolates through the streets of this modern metropolis,
helping to guide the bees to the best cherry blossom hotspots,
it's a perfume that can guide us, too.
-Wow, look at this!
Yes, where are the bees?
Oh, look here. Here. Here's a bee.
-Oh, yeah. You can see the pollen on the legs.
Why do you love the bees so much?
Because bee connected nature and human.
And not only nature, connecting human to human.
-So the bees connect people to nature and people to people?
It's fantastic to have it in the middle of the city.
-Not only buildings.
Buildings and bees!
To the wildlife in Japan,
one cherry tree is pretty much the same as another,
but to the Japanese, they have a hands-down favourite.
The somei yoshino.
There are hundreds of thousands of this one variety across the country
making up these eye-catching displays,
but it's not a natural phenomenon, it's a man-made miracle,
and it's all to do with the way these trees reproduce.
Let me explain.
So here we are. Got to love an anatomical diagram.
So what happens is you have this little thing called a pollen grain
that's floating around,
usually attached to the surface of an insect,
and it gets deposited right here, the surface of the stigma.
When that happens, eventually it starts germinating a structure
called a pollen tube.
That snakes its way down this long corridor called the style,
and for fertilisation to happen,
that actually has to get to the ovary
and deposit its payload of sperm.
The problem is, in this variety
the pollen tube is not quite long enough,
and so fertilisation never takes place.
In this variety the male and female parts just don't fit together.
It's as simple as that.
So the reason this tree has spread throughout the country
is because of cloning.
The method used is called grafting,
where a carefully selected cutting from one plant
is grafted onto the surrogate root of another.
The two form a living bond, continuing to grow as one.
Because there's only one parent tree,
all of these plants look exactly the same.
They're, essentially, just one genetic individual -
a sort of cloned army of physical perfection -
and that's why, although they can't breed,
80% of the sakura trees in Japan look identical,
because they are identical.
But the Japanese passion for sakura isn't just limited
to this one modern variety.
There are dedicated sakura guardians
that care for cherry trees of all types.
They travel all over Japan safeguarding treasured specimens
like the famous 1,000-year-old Takizakura in central Fukushima.
So, I've come to meet one of the most celebrated sakura guardians...
HE SPEAKS JAPANESE
He's the 16th generation in a gardening dynasty
that stretches back to samurai times.
At 89 years old,
he's the most distinguished sakura guardian in Kyoto,
possibly the whole of Japan.
'His lifelong passion is to conserve
'the country's species of wild cherry.'
This one's really beautiful, Mr Sano. What's this one called?
HE SAYS JAPANESE NAME
JAMES REPEATS NAME
When you see a tree like this,
how do you decide whether it's healthy? What do you look for?
You have a hammer?
Oh! There's a completely different sound.
Wow! It's like a doctor using a stethoscope.
You're using audible signals
to detect which parts of the tree are alive and which parts are dead,
just by tapping and listening to the sound.
And what are you looking for there?
So the more nectar it's producing, it's a sign of good health.
That makes sense.
'Mr Sano doesn't just care for the trees,
'his family have been collecting rare cherry varieties
'and planting them in their cherry orchards for generations.
'He has 150 types, and thousands of individual trees.
'It's a botanical ark.'
The way you talk about cherry trees sometimes,
it's almost like they have spirits.
Japanese people love sakura,
but what is it they love so much about it?
I guess it's impossible to explain.
Do you mean that's a difficult question?
What I love is your answer about why you love sakura.
People ask me all the time why I love plants,
and there's no answer - you just love them or you don't.
You can't explain it.
We're in Ueno Park in Tokyo,
and just the other side of that temple is where
everyone is having their picnics and parties.
And, you know, that will go on well into the evening
and apparently it can get really wild after dark.
Wild after dark, but what about wildlife itself?
In particular, birds.
There is one species that has a very close relationship
with the cherry blossom.
In fact, in springtime, for a short period,
it's pretty much dependent upon it.
I wanted to find these birds, so I went off to Kyoto Botanical Garden
in search of them.
Mention Japanese white-eye to anyone here in Japan,
they'll know exactly what you're talking about -
the little green bird in the blossom.
They're a common songbird.
People find them in their gardens,
but they are absolutely synonymous with the sakura.
You'll see them in Japanese paintings,
hanging acrobatically to one of these branches covered in blossom.
Well, you'll see them in the paintings,
but seeing them out here is sometimes a lot more difficult.
You see, they are quite small and they are very fast-moving,
so this could take some time.
Early morning is a good time to look for them
because overnight the blossoms have refilled with nectar.
There are so many different species in these gardens.
Japanese Pygmy woodpeckers...
and dusky thrush.
But still no white-eyes.
Or are there?
There are two.
There are two here.
They are exquisite little birds.
They are very nimble and very acrobatic.
They've got relatively short but very rounded wings
so they can twist and turn,
and you see them doing this as they hop through the bush.
I've seen a lot of white-eyes,
different species around the world
but never Japanese white-eye before,
so this is a tick, a tick for me.
I tell you what else is in here, though, great tit,
and there's a couple of brown or chestnut-eared bulbuls.
It's a very busy tree.
But this tree at this time of year is a sugar factory,
and that resource is not going to be wasted by nature.
So all of these birds have come into this one particularly candy-floss tree
to have their breakfast.
There may be lots of birds feasting on the nectar here,
but few can match the white-eye's efficient design.
And I'm able to perfectly illustrate that
using the ancient Japanese art of origami.
Here we have a white-eye in 400 folds.
And here is a model of the blossom itself.
Now, what you can see is that when the bird is foraging for nectar,
it sticks its beak down here into the flower's nectary
and it's able to reach it,
and inside its mouth, it has a tongue
with a little frilly brush on the end of it
with which it withdraws the nectar very neatly,
like this, without damaging the flower.
From the flower's point of view there's a benefit to this
because it deposits the pollen on the bird's forehead
so that when it flies away
and then comes to the next tree with blossom and it inserts its beak,
it transfers the pollen, effects fertilisation,
and both species are happy.
All explained in paper.
For the Japanese, the arrival of sakura signals the start of hanami.
Hanami literally translated means looking at flowers,
and for generations it's also been synonymous
with picnics under the blooms.
The sakura season also coincides
with the start of the financial year,
a perfect reason for Japan's hard-working businessmen
to let their hair down and party.
And there is no more prestigious addition to any celebration
than the attendance of Japan's most ancient and enchanting entertainers,
But for the majority it's still very much a family affair,
with most Japanese celebrating with their relatives.
UPBEAT STRING MUSIC PLAYS
James has been invited to join some families
at Kyoto's Daitoku-ji Temple,
where the festivities are also in full swing.
-Don't start without me.
Ken, I've got you this.
I've got to confess, I don't know what it is.
Oh, that is a sakura dango. This is dango.
-Oh, so I've got you something you like?
And I've noticed, is that a sakura petal on the top there?
Yeah. That is sakura flower and this is sakura leaf.
I've noticed, Ken, these little adorable characters.
What are these? Explain that to me.
That is for my children. It is, kind of, bear...
-You've it made yourself?
So these are very traditional Japanese foods.
Sometimes the children don't like that traditional old taste.
Children like it - pretty shapes.
It seems like children are the same all over the world.
Why is hanami important to you?
Hanami is a New Year event.
-So, this is special. Very special.
We come together with all my family and join to have a picnic.
That's the most important.
-So, food is...
-You have three generations.
And you say food is secondary,
but this is the most perfect picnic I've ever seen,
so I'm getting jealous. I want to be part of your family.
Darkness has fallen here in Ueno Park
and, I have to say, with the blossom fully out,
the parties are in full swing,
and some of these people have been drinking sake,
I think, since about lunchtime.
It's beginning to get a little bit lairy.
I must say, it's a very different feel to the one James was enjoying
which was much more of a family atmosphere.
This is a lot of young people, a lot of students.
As you can see, the cherry blossom is illuminated.
Everyone is trying to get in our shot.
So, Chris said, the sake is flowing
and I think it's about time we joined in.
-I've got a sake in my backpack.
-Come on, Chris.
I'm going to meet the people.
Well, you meet the people, I'm going to find a sober corner
to hang out with some businessmen, I think.
Obviously, I'm going to look for somebody
that speaks a little bit of English cos my Japanese is terrible.
These guys look nice.
Can I join?
THEY CHEER AND SHOUT
Oh, my goodness, I've made friends very quickly.
-Do you speak English?
OK, look, I have some sake.
One cup! One cup!
Very good. Very good.
Are you all enjoying yourselves?
Oh, my goodness! Sake.
Here's a quieter corner.
I'm not entirely sure this is business going on over here,
but at least it's not a riot.
I'm going to see what they make of this.
-Hi, good evening.
-May I interrupt you briefly?
-Hi. My name is Oka.
-May I ask you a couple of questions about your picnic?
-Yeah, sure. Yeah.
Firstly, why picnic under the blossom?
-A kind of party, you know?
-So a good place to party?
Will you come tomorrow night?
-We can do weekends.
But it's quite cold.
Ah, no, drink!
Oh, you drink and then you get warm.
-Drink more sake and we get warm.
That's a good idea. OK.
Will you be at work on time in the morning?
And all of your friends too?
-Yes, I guess all my friends have work tomorrow, I guess.
And will this be your only picnic, or will you come back for more?
It's absolutely fantastic, and you know what?
I think this could be a late night,
and it won't be Chris's first on this trip.
Not because he's been out drinking and partying,
but he's been on a mission to find another night-time reveller
that also might make the most of these hanami parties.
I'm on the prowl for a prowler.
It's got a bandit mask, velvet paws,
sneaks around in the shadows.
You might think that I'm talking about a manga character
or even a burglar,
but, no, I'm talking about an animal, the Japanese raccoon dog,
or tanuki, as they call them here.
And what I'm particularly interested in is what they eat
in these urban areas,
and if they take advantage of any of those hanami picnics
taking place under the blossom.
But I have got a problem.
Namely, they're very difficult to find.
They're said to have magical, shape-shifting powers,
and bring good fortune to all of those they meet,
but they are extremely shy.
So, to see one, we've set up an infrared camera
in a piece of woodland quite close by,
and we're tucked away out of sight
so that, hopefully, we don't scare them.
That's if they turn up, of course.
Do you know, I first started waiting to see animals
when I was five years old.
I'm now 55 years old, and guess what,
I'm still waiting to see animals.
But with a little bit of luck, or a tanuki,
tonight could be the night.
Tanuki are a unique subspecies of raccoon dog found only in Japan,
and at this time of year, they start to become more active.
Despite their name and their masked appearance,
they are not a raccoon and they're not a dog.
But they are a member of the canid family,
very distantly related to things like wolves, foxes and jackals.
And just like foxes back at home in the UK
monopolising the ready food supply,
they've taken comfortably to life on the street,
meaning our best chance of spotting one
is actually in the suburbs of Tokyo.
Earlier today I met up with Dr Sekei Takatsuki,
or Taka to his friends,
and he's been studying the local population here
to discover how diverse their feeding habits are.
The thing is, this latrine, Taka, is very close to those houses.
If you were on this balcony later this evening,
there is a good chance you might see them.
Yeah. One day the lady living here told me
she often find raccoon dog walking around here.
Taka, I see you've got cameras set-up on the tree here,
-Do they tell you how many animals are visiting here?
Are you able to identify them as individuals?
-At least three.
-At least three?
Because the camera took video,
and two tanuki came and defecated.
Then after that, just after that, another one came,
a different individual.
So I guess at least three,
and probably more use this latrine.
Do we have enough samples, or do you need a couple more?
-One or two more.
-One or two more.
-Let's go for this.
This is the seed of dogwood.
So we've got a mix here of food that they forage for themselves,
like the dogwood,
-and there's more vegetable material in there, as well.
But it looks to me like they've also been scavenging
-around human food remains there.
-Yes, right. Yeah.
Taka, given that so many people picnic underneath the cherry trees,
where they then tie up their bags and they leave it behind,
do you think that the tanuki might be tempted
to have a little cherry blossom festival of their own?
In general, yes.
But cherries are planted in parks,
and I don't think raccoon dogs prefer such habitat.
You see, I've seen raccoon dogs in zoos,
but I've never seen one in the wild.
Is there any chance that you might mark some bait
for me to put out tonight
-so that I might get a chance of seeing a tanuki?
-Is that possible?
-Let's do that, yes.
-I have sausage, so we can do that.
I like a strategically placed sausage myself.
Some are little higher up where we can see that.
-This means for good luck.
We are going to need it!
So, as darkness falls, all we can do is wait.
-Yes! Yes! Yes!
-Oh, yeah, yeah.
What about that?
-Bang on cue.
Look at that.
What about that?
If I had all the time I'd spent waiting to see animals,
I'd spend all the time I had waiting to see animals,
because when they show up, it's fantastic!
THEY LAUGH What about that?
That was great, wasn't it?
Oh, Chris, I'd love to see those tanuki.
They looked so cool.
In fact, do you think if I stay in this park long enough
until it gets really dark -
I could go back and party with those guys -
then I might see one in this park?
I think if you drink as much sake as they've had,
you could see anything in this park, to be quite honest with you!
But unlikely a tanuki.
Although having said that,
Taka did tell me that they do occur right in the centre of Tokyo,
but they like it a little bit quieter,
somewhere where there's plenty of undergrowth for them to hide.
Probably far too many people here.
Although having said that, it has started to quieten down,
-partly because it's got a little bit chilly, hasn't it?
But, you know, I've absolutely loved being part
of this natural celebration of spring,
and I love the fact that it's all ages that join in.
You know, from the families that James was partying with
to students, to businessmen, to people our age and above,
all generations enjoy this arrival of spring.
And I like the degree of effort they put in to making sure
that they get all of the timing,
all of the predictions exactly right.
I mean, it's big business - that comes into it too -
but you get a real sense of anticipation here.
Everyone's waiting for this blossom, so they can go out and get happy.
Very happy, in some cases.
Do you know what I like, Chris?
I like the fact that this is a very organised, formal society,
but the time to party is dictated by nature.
-It is brilliant.
And we've saved perhaps the most brilliant thing till last,
because quite a few hours south of here is a very special spot
where nature and spirituality combine
to produce the world's greatest blossom spectacle,
and James has been lucky enough to go and see it.
Over 300 miles south of Tokyo,
Mount Yoshino is an extraordinary sight.
Covered in 30,000 cherry trees,
it isn't difficult to see why it's known as the pink mountain.
But the spectacle we see today owes its beauty
to a very special relationship.
Mount Yoshino has been a centre of pilgrimage for over 1,000 years,
and Kinpusen Temple is the main site of worship on the mountain.
It's arguably the most important temple in Shugendo,
a Japanese religion of mountain worship.
A religion that largely blends Buddhism and Shintoism.
This head temple was founded in the mid-7th century,
and is listed as a World Heritage Site.
It's home to these magnificent carvings of Zao Gongen,
the mountain deity,
one of the most important figures in the whole of Shegundo,
representing the past, present, and future of Buddha,
and it's such a privilege to be here and able to see them,
because they're only on show to the public
when the sakura are blossoming.
Just a couple of weeks, once a year.
CHANTING AND DRUMMING
The temple was established by En-no-Gyoja,
the fabled founder of the Shugendo religion,
and it's been associated with cherry blossom ever since.
So I'm meeting one of the most important monks here
to find out why.
Goja San, it's such a beautiful temple
right at the top of the mountain,
but why build a temple so high up?
This mountain in front of us is just incredible, covered in cherry trees.
Is there a reason for that?
People still plant sakura, I'm imagining.
Have you ever planted sakura?
What does sakura mean to you?
The relationship with sakura is so interwoven,
both spiritually and culturally, with people here,
that this sacred tree will be planted for generations to come,
ensuring that Mount Yoshino continues to turn pink
for another thousand years.
What a thing.
What a thing! That was amazing.
Stunning indeed, but you know, Michaela,
I've been thinking about the Japanese
and their obsession with this blossom,
and it's highlighted, for me, a real contrast
in the country and its culture.
I mean, some aspects of it I find incredibly confusing,
Others are very exciting and alluring.
I would love to come back
and witness and enjoy this fantastic spring festival again.
Chris, have you noticed how the blossom looks down?
It's almost as if it appreciates and thrives
on people looking up at it.
Or do you think I've had too much sake?
You might have had a little bit too much sake there!
But what I do love is the fact that the blossom has
a short, showy, spectacular life that people applaud and celebrate,
and it's all in glorious pink.
I mean, what's not to love?
Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and James Wong join the lively cherry blossom celebrations taking place across Japan this spring. The blossom or 'sakura' is one of the world's most stunning seasonal wonders, with blankets of pink flowers sweeping across the country. Whilst James looks at the history of this famous festival, Chris and Michaela discover the wildlife that live alongside the blossom. And all three find themselves partying with the crowds of Japanese 'blossom watchers'.