Here in Japan, many people look forward to spring all year -- and spring means sakura (桜 cherry trees). Is your vision of cherry blossom viewing shaped by serene stock photos of stunning pink flowers? If so, having an in-person hanami (花見 flower viewing) experience might come as quite a surprise. (Download Odigo's how-to-hanami check list here!)
Stunning blossoms at Sugawara Shrine from Flickr cc by Yoshimitsu Kurooka
A love of spring flowers is not uncommon. Many cultures appreciate blossoms as a sign of warm weather on the horizon, but for the Japanese it goes well beyond that simple sentiment. Postcard images don’t come close to replicating the feeling of being surrounded by clouds of pink petals. Just like the elaborate carvings in the Alhambra in Spain or the majesty of the Grand Canyon in the U.S., photos and words fall short of capturing a real-time experience of cherry blossom season in Japan.
Hanami celebrations from Flickr cc by LuxTonnerre
Hanami is a highly social affair. People arrive extremely early to claim space for friends, colleagues, or family members under the cherry trees. Hanami gatherings can last for many hours and are often some of the best-loved and remembered events all year long!
While hanami is a great party season, this centuries-old tradition has deep roots.
Hanami has a long and storied history
A young girl holding a doll remembers the revelry during a festival beneath blossoming cherry trees on the banks of a river (LOC) from The Library of Congress
Japan's rich agricultural history intertwines with a host of Shinto practices. These rituals and customs connect the land with the needs of early farmers. In Shintoism, people believed that spirits or gods lived in natural objects, including the trees. Before spring arrived, farmers and their families made ritual offerings to the gods at the base of sakura trees. The event often included some ceremonial sipping of sake and blooming cherry trees became a promising sign of a successful planting season to come.
Utagawa Hiroshige (Japan, Edo, 1797-1858)- Act IV: Envoys from the Shogun Approach Lady Kaoyo and Group at Enya's Castle -- (Public domain from Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
By the 8th century, the practice of holding flower-viewing parties was common in the imperial court. At that point, plum blossoms, ume (梅) not sakura, were the center of attention. Plum blossoms arrive early in the year when the cold still keeps people indoors. Over time, customs changed and hanami became synonymous with the viewing of cherry blossoms, which flower as spring takes hold, making events and celebrations easier and more fun.
Merrymaking under the cherry blossoms, anonymous 17th-century Japanese six-panel screen photo from the Honolulu Museum of Art cc wikimedia commons
The beauty and fragility of cherry blossoms became a frequent theme in literature and art. Samurai took up calligraphy brushes to write poems about sakura. Ukiyoe (浮世絵 woodblock print) artists included cherry blossoms in countless prints. Paintings of sakura branches in full bloom sprawled across decorative screens featured in high-status households.
Cherry blossoms at dusk photo by Nathan Hosken
Philosophical perspectives inspired by the flowers remain embedded in Japanese culture today. After a long, cold winter, the coming of the blossoms is a collective bright spot in minds and hearts. Hanami season is short, usually lasting less than two weeks. The fragile blossoms can be blown away by a single day of strong March winds. For many people, this elicits bittersweet contemplation, and an intense celebration of life’s delicate brevity.
The emotional connection to this time of year is so powerful that Japanese people who are working or studying overseas find themselves longing for hanami. While abroad they miss the cherry trees as much as they miss far away family and friends.
Hanami revelers in Ueno Park photo by Nathan Hosken
At its heart hanami is a raucous and fun celebration of spring!
Hanami is so much more than poetry and philosophy. The expression hana yori dango(花より団子) applies to many people during hanami time. Roughly translating to “dumplings over flowers”, the expression jests about valuing good food and socializing over the short-lived beauty of blossoms. Indeed, hanami can be quite an affair. New friends and old hang out under the trees, bracing against the chilly weather with warm sake (rice wine), drinking beer, singing songs, chatting, joking and people watching. Sharing food and drink with friends in this setting is a quintessential part of springtime in Japan.
Sharing food and celebrating hanami from Flickr cc by thaths
People hold hanami gatherings all times of day. Most commonly cherry blossom events begin around lunchtime, or just after work. Yozakura (夜桜 night cherry blossom-viewing) is also amazing. The view of the trees lit by lanterns and spotlights is stunning. Full of fun-loving crowds, the atmosphere as the evening draws on is exciting. Yozakura is a special way to see the blossoms in a whole new light.
Paddling through night views of sakura season from Flickr cc by Ryo Fujita
Here are a couple of tips if invited to a hanami event. Make sure to remove your shoes before stepping onto the party mat. You may need to take your own bento or packed lunch, but sharing food and drinks is always welcome. Carrying along whatever you’ll need to keep warm like pocket hand warmers and extra layers of clothing is a good idea.
Sakura blooming photo by Nathan Hosken
Perhaps you prefer a quieter less crowded opportunity to appreciate the drifting petals? Many temples, shrines, and smaller neighborhood parks have cherry trees and offer a calm atmosphere. River promenades lined with sakura also make lovely places for a peaceful hanami stroll. The seemingly simple task of deciding where to go can actually be difficult with thousands of choices of stunning locations.
Other parts of Japan boast stunning sakura as well. Some notable spots are The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, Goryokaku Park in Hakodate, Hanamiyama Park in Fukushima, and Handayama Botanical Garden in Okayama. Anywhere you travel during hanami season you will be inspired by the beautiful blossoms all around you.
Cherry blossoms and spring skies photo by Nathan Hosken
Even if you don’t yet have Japanese friends to share hanami with, you can always go and make some! After all, in the words of famous haiku poet Kobayashi Issa:
Haiku by Kobayashi Issa, image quote by Lauren Shannon