A Japanese mejiro perches on a kanhizakura tree.

A Japanese mejiro perches on a kanhizakura tree. (Aya Ichihashi/Stars and Stripes)

During the early spring months, one of the most popular activities in mainland Japan is hanami — coming together with friends, family or coworkers for food-filled picnics that take place beneath the fully-bloomed sakura, or cherry blossom, trees. Hanami means “flower viewing” in Japanese, and many residents of Japan look forward to these lively gatherings as a way to celebrate the end of a long and cold winter.

On Okinawa, hanami is more subdued compared to the hanami celebrations on the mainland. Here, hanami is less about bentos and beer and more about enjoying nature — a laid-back activity fitting for the island lifestyle. Sakura viewers drive to their favorite hanami locations and stroll around to look at the blossoms, enjoying snacks such as yakisoba and ice cream sold by vendors.

Okinawa hanami comes earlier than it does elsewhere. Okinawa’s cherry blossom season starts much earlier than mainland Japan, beginning around mid-January and lasting through mid-February. During this time, other flowers are also often in full bloom.

While Okinawa’s summers are famous across the country, the mild weather during Okinawa hanami makes winter an ideal time to visit the island and take in the scenery.

Here are some of the best spots on Okinawa to have a fun-filled flower viewing experience.

Yaedake Sakura Festival The Yaedake Sakura Festival is the most famous hanami celebration on Okinawa. Visitors can drive up Yaedake (also known as Mt. Yae) and enjoy the kanhizakura, or Taiwanese cherry blossoms, that dot the mountain. Kanhizakura blossoms are a bright, vivid pink — a colorful contrast to the pale pink someiyoshino blossoms usually found on the mainland. There are other differences about this type of blossom, too. At the end of the sakura season, the entire flower falls off the tree, instead of the individual petals.

While driving up the mountain, be sure to stop at the Bic Ice ice cream stand for their popular sakura ice cream (400 yen for a double scoop, or about $3.50). Served in a handmade waffle cone, the sakura ice cream is sold only during hanami season. I always look forward to having at least one or two sakura waffle cones during the season.

Haneji cosmos Cosmos, a bright pink flower similar to daisies, are known as autumn flowers in mainland Japan — but you can spot cosmos in Okinawa in January and February. The most famous locations for cosmos viewing are at Haneji rice farms.

The farmers plant cosmos seeds in their rice fields to enrich the soil and allow it to rest between crops. After the cosmos are fully bloomed, the plants are used as fertilizer for the next crop of rice — but not before crowds of flower lovers come to enjoy the colorful scene.

The flowers are usually cut down by the farmers in February, so be sure to come earlier in the season for the best chances at seeing the blooms.

Kitanakagusuku sunflowers Sunflowers aren’t often associated with winter — but on Okinawa, the bright yellow flowers are in full bloom around hanami season. In the Kitanakagusuku neighborhood, located slightly north of Ginowan, visitors can enjoy seeing the earliest-blooming sunflowers in Japan.

Here, a small sunflower garden nestled in a residential neighborhood is popular among locals for its collection of brightly colored blooms. Parking can be difficult, but the site of sunflowers in winter is sure to make up for the effort it takes to get there.

Whether you’re looking to practice your photography skills or simply enjoy some time outdoors and welcome the new year with family or friends, Okinawa’s hanami season offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beauty and nature of this tiny island.

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