Blooming cherry trees, known as ‘sakura’ in Japanese, signify the welcoming of spring, while the act of viewing and celebrating the blossoms is called ‘hanami.’
You can experience one of Urbana’s most beautiful sights each spring for free — but don’t blink or you might miss it.
Cherry trees in bloom, known as “sakura,” are a time-honored symbol of early spring. Their fragile beauty symbolizes springtime renewal, and reminds us of the fleeting nature of life. While many of us have heard about the cherry trees in Washington, D.C. and the famous spring festival that celebrates them, most people don’t realize that here in Urbana we have one of the most glorious groves of cherry trees in Illinois.
A few years ago, a website named the Urbana grove one of the best places to see cherry blossoms in the United States. The cherry trees nestled within the Arboretum are an extension of the gardens at Japan House at the University of Illinois.
During this season in Japan, people like to have cherry blossom viewing parties with colleagues, friends, and family. They enjoy eating, drinking, and gathering underneath the blossoms. They refer to this custom as “hanami.” Hanami is translated as “flower viewing” — hana (flower) and mi (to see or view), and the tradition can be traced back a thousand years.
Perhaps the most meaningful experience of hanami in recent local memory occurred in March of 2020. Even though all public scheduled activities had just been canceled because of COVID-19, you could find small family groups outside Japan House giving each other a wide berth while taking in the sights and sounds of spring. That year, sakura provided a vivid symbol of hope amidst the crippling unknowns of a global pandemic.
Typically, sakura happens in Urbana sometime during the first half of April, a couple of weeks later than peak bloom in Washington, D.C. Keep up with the timing of Urbana’s sakura thanks to Japan House’s annual “Sakura Watch” posts on their website and on their social media (Facebook and Instagram). If you want to see the cherry blossoms at their peak, be sure to head over there before wind and rain — or merely the passing of time — end the blossoms’ reign.
When our family has made special trips in years past to see the cherry tree blossoms, the pink-and-white flowers never disappoint. The setting in Cherry Tree Allée is literally breathtaking. The calm, peaceful atmosphere isn’t lost even on typically rambunctious children, who might enjoy taking photos amongst the trees and around the pond (but no standing in garden beds, climbing trees, or throwing rocks).
Note that the Arboretum doesn’t have any playground equipment, so depending on your child, you might want to bring outdoor toys for the wide open spaces. The good news is that the paved paths are wide and perfect for riding toys and strollers, and there are plenty of grassy areas suitable for running and hills that demand rolling.
Please be mindful of other guests who have come to enjoy sakura, and remind little ones that the gravel areas in Japanese-style gardens are considered part of the carefully designed landscape and are not meant to be walked on. Click here for more information from Japan House on visitor etiquette during sakura.
The Arboretum is a beautiful place to visit regardless of the time of year. Many are familiar with it thanks to the visible Idea Garden. It has been improved over the past decade (thanks to generous donations), particularly in terms of accessibility with closer parking and more paved paths. In the Arboretum we enjoy the Frank Kari Walkway, a paved loop that is a nice walk even for littles, complete with many benches and ample shade in the summer months. For more info, visit the Arboretum website or see our post.
IF YOU GO:
- The Arboretum and Japan House are located in Urbana off the east side of Lincoln Avenue, just south of Florida Avenue.
- The Arboretum is a public garden open daily, between the hours of sunrise until sunset.
- Japan House is a university teaching facility and is not open to the public except for scheduled events.
- Parking is available on the street and in two lots, and spots are metered. Meters are not generally enforced after 5 p.m. and on weekends/holidays, but please always read the meter itself.
- Be aware there are no public bathrooms.