I never paid much attention to trees or flowers. Sure, I’ve always loved the significance of blooming flowers as a sign that winter’s end is near. But it wasn’t until my first spring season in Japan that I truly fell in love with a tree: the cherry blossom.

Cherry blossoms, or sakura as they’re called in Japanese, bloom once a year for about one to two weeks. Cherry blossom forecasts are included in the local news like weather reports, and people plan their travel around the cherry blossom peak blooms. And the Japanese organize hanami, the tradition of gathering with friends, food and drinks under the blooming sakura as a celebratory flower-viewing.

I’m lucky to have lived in Japan for three years, where I experienced the magic of Japanese sakura and hanami three times. Because of those experiences, I’ve become somewhat of a cherry blossom snob. So when I found two locations in the U.S. with a collection of cherry blossoms beautiful enough to (almost) compare to those in Japan, I started making sure to follow those bloom forecasts closely and plan an annual viewing.

So where have I seen the sakura in peak bloom? Here are three places I’ve gone for cherry blossom viewing.

1. Virginia Beach, Virginia

I don’t have to go very far to see cherry blossoms at peak bloom in my own hometown. Red Wing Park in Virginia Beach, Virginia hosts an annual Cherry Blossom Festival to celebrate Spring and its sister city Miyazaki City, Japan while taking in the beauty of the trees that form the perfect pink canopy to walk through.

I have to admit I don’t attend the actual festivals. Instead, I sneak in my own virtually private visits a few days in advance before the crowds show up. Not only are my photos free of other admirers, but I selfishly get the cherry blossoms all to myself on the sunny day of my choosing.

2. Washington, DC

Planning a trip to DC that coordinates with the cherry blossoms at their peak is a bit tougher than driving 20 minutes to a local park, but my family managed to hit the perfect timing during Spring Break a few years ago.

Strolling around the Tidal Basin and the 3,000 plus cherry blossom trees almost felt like being surrounded by cotton candy. I could have stayed there all day long, regardless of how many hundreds of other people were there doing the same thing, but my kids were done “looking at trees.”

3. Japan

Of course Japan has the most epic cherry blossoms. While I would have loved to see the sakura in Kyoto or Tokyo, my trips to those cities never quite lined up with cherry blossom season. But I still got to experience Japanese sakura and hanami in the town of Sasebo, where I lived for three years.

From watching Japanese locals picnic under the trees, to walking through town at night to see the blooms lit up by lanterns, to going to popular parks with American friends to stage photos of our kids, my memories of sakura season in Japan remain among my favorites of my time there.

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