Life is beautiful, fragile and fleeting: This is one of the central understandings that underpins much Japanese art and culture, from ikebana to calligraphy to fresh sushi. Nature and its seasonal, ever-changing beauty is crucial to Japanese life and culture, and one of the events in Japanese life where that is most apparent is in the spring tradition known as hanami.
Its literal meaning being “viewing the flowers,” hanami is the annual celebration of one of Japan’s most indelible images: the cherry blossoms of early spring. During the brief period in late March and early April when the country’s millions of cherry trees bloom, one sees the national love of nature in its most popular expression.
Hanami parties are a primary social event for much of this time. The Japanese put together elaborate picnics, complete with fine clothes and fine sake, to picnic with friends and family under the branches of cherry trees in public parks and on the grounds of temples, shrines and even royal palaces.
These hanami picnics are so popular with so many Japanese that there is a specific “blossom forecast” on TV and radio in the weeks leading up to the bloom, so that the Japanese can plan ahead for a hanami at the perfect peak of the bloom.
But the tradition greatly precedes the blossom forecasts on the news. Hanami are recorded as far back as the Nara era of the eighth century, when the tradition was more often focused on plum (ume) blossoms, which bloom a week or two before the cherry (sakura) blossoms. The focus shifted to cherry blossoms during the ninth century.
Hanami brings together several threads of Japanese culture, focused above all on the Japanese love of nature and beauty, the delight in simple things, the joy of eating and drinking together, and the opportunity to take a break from those seemingly-endless Japanese work days.
Hana yori dango is another phrase that pops up this time of year, a gently mocking phrase that translates to “dumplings rather than flowers.” The saying recognizes that for many Japanese, the food and drink that come with the hanami celebrations can be the focus of revelers more than the blossoms themselves.
But the flowers are the whole point of hanami, and a significant variation on hanami is the popular night version, which has been dubbed yozakura – “night sakura” – by the Japanese. Paper lanterns may be hung in the park to help people navigate the dark, and even more importantly, to illuminate the blossoms.
Another version, reputed to be even older, is umemi, or “plum viewing,” which is generally a bit more reserved than hanami, and for that reason is often enjoyed by older people for whom the drinking and occasionally boisterous partying is not “true hanami.”
There are a variety of ways in which Japanese enjoy hanami parties, from a simple blanket on the ground under the trees to fully-equipped grills, tables, chairs and coolers. Sake is widely drunk, and bento boxes are popular. Some have even been seen to bring karaoke machines for singing under the blossoms.
Some of the major department stores or food chains offer special hanami bento boxes or other pre-packaged picnics for hanami goers. It is not required to even eat Japanese food; the Japanese themselves are big fans of wine and cheese and bread and may well bring whatever food they like to a hanami.
Other things to consider are that even though cherry trees are everywhere in Japan, some groves are not open for hanami, and some groves that are open for hanami may not allow alcohol to be drunk. It is best to ask a Japanese friend or acquaintance about the places where hanami will be happening, and under what conditions.
The cherry blossoms start as early as mid-January in southern Okinawa and then gradually move north with the warming spring weather. By mid-March, the more southern parts of Japan start getting their hanami, and the movement up the archipelago can go as late as early May in Sapporo on the northern most island of Hokkaido.
Some of the major spots for hanami in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo and north include Ueno Park in Tokyo, which is said to have hosted as many as two million people over the course of the roughly two week hanami season, as well as Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. The latter is one of the favorites of that city, given that the garden is home to a number of different cherry tree varieties, so the viewing can be particularly rich.
Beautiful Kyoto is spectacular during the hanami season, with its many parks, gardens, temples and shrine complexes floating in clouds of pink flowers. Be aware that hanami season will find every hotel in town booked solid, so plan ahead if you want to visit during this special time of the year.
But wherever one goes, and whatever one brings to eat and drink, the annual hanami celebrations are some of the most quintessentially Japanese parties of the year in the Japanese archipelago. If your trip to Japan can include cherry blossom viewing season, hanami is a sight you will not easily forget.