As spring begins to peak just over the horizon, and winter snow melts, Japan prepares for a highly anticipated tradition. Hanami, which translates to “flower viewing” in Japanese, is more commonly used to refer to the cherry blossom viewing. If you needed a reason to visit Japan this spring, this yearly tradition of admiring the beautiful national symbol with parties and picnics might be what you’re looking for.
Every spring, the cherry tree comes into bloom after a period of dormancy in the colder months, much like myself after a long winter. The buds are formed during the summer of the preceding year. There are many different kinds of cherry trees, but most share similar qualities. The cherry blossom appears as small, delicate white or pink flowers completely covering the tree. The bloom lasts only a week and will fall before the leaves come out.
From a distance, the blossoms appear as pink and white clouds. While up close, one can see the allure in a single blossom. Cherry blossoms are especially beautiful when viewed alongside a castle, temple, or shrine. Many areas keep the trees lit in the evening, making for an amazing sight.
The practice of hanami is centuries old. Originally, the term was used to describe the viewing of ume (plum) blossoms in the Nara Period, from 710 to 784. It is said to have originated from the Chinese Tang Dynasty custom of admiring flowers. During the Heian Period, sakura (cherry) blossoms were drawing more attention.
First used in the Heian era novel, Tale of Genji, “hanami” and “flower party” became synonymous with cherry blossom viewing. Emperor Saga continued the custom and held hanami feasts and parties underneath the trees.
Hanami parties grew in popularity during the Azuchi-momoyama Period from 1568 to 1600. The celebrations were limited to only the elite of the Imperial Court but trickled down to the samurai society. Soon after, during the Edo Period (1600 to 1867), commoners were partaking in the festivities.
Hishikawa Moronobu 1694, Cherry Blossom Viewing (folding screen)
Poems were written about the time of the flowers, which was seen as a metaphor about the fragility of life; luminous and beautiful, while fleeting and ephemeral. The idea of a temporary life is highly discussed in Japanese culture.
Looking at the Mountain Sakura in mist
I miss a person who looks at the Sakura
~ Kino Tsurayuki
Prosperous Nara city,
The beauty of a full scent of cherry blossoms,
~ Onono Oyu
Sleeping under the trees on Yoshino mountain
The spring breeze wearing Cherry blossom petals
Hanami can be a simple stroll in the park, but it often involves a picnic under the blooming cherry trees. Parties have been held for centuries and continue today. In public and private gardens and parks, people will gather to surround themselves in the beauty. Famous viewing spots usually are quite crowded, and ideal picnic spots are highly sought after.
Some places allow you to mark your spot with a sheet long before you plan your picnic, while others do not, so many times a person will be assigned to guard the area. Having a good plan is key because thousands of people show up for the party…so space is limited.
The trees are viewed in high regard, and those celebrating are asked to treat them carefully. Pulling and shaking of branches, picking of blossoms, climbing the trees, and standing on the roots are all prohibited.
Depending on the region of Japan, the blooming and festivities happen at different dates between March and April. Some bloom in early May. According to the most recent cherry blossom forecast, the blossoms are expected to open on time this year, except in Tokyo (where they are predicted to open days earlier on March 22), and Kyoto (where they are predicted to open March 28). You can track the forecast here.
Among the popular places to enjoy the beautiful sight are Shinjuku Gyoen and Ueno Park in Tokyo, Sankeien Garden in Yokohama, Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, and Fukuoka Castle in Fukuoka.