Japan’s most iconic season is about to begin as it has been predicted that the cherry blossoms (sakura 桜) will begin to bloom across the country this week.
Found throughout Japan, sakura generally bloom from late March to early May, starting in Kyushu and steadily progressing northward sweeping across the nation until it reaches Hokkaido where the season comes to an end.
Each spring, everyone eagerly awaits for the first glimpse of pink on the trees. “Sakura Forecasts” are tracked online, and even aired on TV, showing precisely when and where the sakura are blooming.
The exciting thing about the sakura season is that nobody really knows when it will happen until right before it actually does. Even though no one knows exactly when they will bloom, everyone does know what will happen when they finally do– hanami!
Hanami (花見) literally means “flower viewing” (hana 花 “flower” and mi 見 “to see or view”), and this tradition can be traced back two centuries, said to have started during the Nara period around 710-784.
It is something that can be moving and spiritual, with deep and ancient connections to Japanese history and culture. Sakura have long been prominent in Japanese art, society and are even connected to the Bushido, the traditional code of samurai, due to their symbolic nature.
Blossoms usually last for only one week, and sometimes even less if it’s windy or it rains. No matter how beautiful the blossom, it will soon wither away and throughout the week petals gracefully twirl to the ground. It is because of this fragility, that sakura are often compared to the fleetingness of human life. And Japan loves the beauty of transience.
During hanami, people view the flowers not just by casually strolling by, but rather, by spreading their sheets under the blooming trees for a day of picnicking and partying with friends.
These flower viewing parties are a great opportunity to enjoy the spring weather with your friends and family, and often people will attend more than one. It is especially common for employees to be given a day off to go enjoy hanami together. These days will be spent eating, singing… and let’s not forget dancing, which is more often than not fueled by alcohol.
While some people like to view the blossoms from a distance, others like to view them up close, to see each individual blossom and to feel the petals fall around you.
To enjoy a hanami you’ll first need to reserve a spot, as popular parks, temples and castle grounds will become very crowded quickly. An easy way of doing this is to stake out your spot early in the morning and spread a sheet or tarp out with a note that has your name and the hour you plan to arrive. Otherwise, you will just have to nominate someone to sit at your spot until everyone can arrive.
As hanami often last all day, you may want to bring along additional entertainment like a book, cards or another game. You’ll often see people who bring speakers for music or even a guitar. This is perfectly fine but do keep in mind all the other groups around you.
At some of the more popular locations, the city will often hold a festival of sorts, complete with food stalls, games, and more, which is another great source of entertainment.
For some, the most important part of a hanami is the food. After all, there’s a reason behind the old Japanese saying hana yori dango (花より団子) meaning “dumplings over flowers”. The Japanese may love and appreciate beauty, but they will still prefer the practical over the aesthetic.
Snacks from a convenience store are fine for most, but it is likely that the lines of these places will be very long. Rather than wasting your time waiting, pack food from home or buy a special sakura-themed bento box from a depachika (the basement of a department store).
If you’re going to bring food at home, appetizers and finger foods are best– anything that’s easy to share. There are a lot of special sweets and snacks during this time of year that make use of the sakura motif which are great food options for your hanami.
For drinks you’ll rarely find anything other than beer and sake being served, so relax and enjoy a day of social drinking outdoors.
A word of caution though, apparently a few parks do ban alcohol, so make certain that you know the rules of the park beforehand! Of course at these locations the beer and sake will be replaced by normal soft drinks and teas instead.
Today, Japanese cherry trees can be seen around the world, and not just in Japan.
One of the most famous places outside Japan for cherry blossoms is the West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., which has sakura trees that were gifts from the mayor of Tokyo in 1912 to symbolise the developing friendship between the U.S. and Japan. There is also a festival held during cherry blossom season here, that many D.C. locals and visitors alike go to enjoy.
Point being, you don’t have to be in Japan to have a hanami of your own, so get out there and go enjoy the beauty of spring!
Do you like sakura? Do you think you could spend a whole day viewing them and picnicking?