After what seemed like a never ending winter, spring has finally sprung and with it has brought one of Japan’s most cherished events; hanami. “What’s hanami?” I hear you say… better known in the West as ‘cherry blossom viewing’, it’s the epitome of Japanese spring. The weather is beautifully pleasant, the sakura (cherry blossoms) burst into full bloom and everyone is alive with the joy of spring.
Did you know that the cherry blossoms actually only bloom for about two weeks? Therefore timing is imperative! They start to bloom around March 20th in Kyushu and continue to bloom throughout the rest of Japan by the end of March/beginning of April. Although, with spring being rather unpredictable; beautiful sunshine one minute and raining cats and dogs the next… the delicate sakura can be washed away in the blink of an eye. Perhaps the rarity of the blossoms is what makes them so attractive?
Or perhaps the blushing pink and white colours, the delicate smells or the excitement of a cherry blossom viewing party! Either way, sakura in Japan are adored and enjoyed every year by Japanese people and visitors alike.
How To Set Up Your Hanami
First things first, you find a great spot where the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. Usually the local park has a lot of trees. You grab your picnic blanket or ‘blue sheet’ from the 100 yen store and set up your spot under the sakura. Be sure to get there early to secure your spot as people love to flock under the sakura during this time. After you have found a nice spot, spread your blue sheet and leave some marks, that way you can go back home and have a sleep before your special day. Luckily in Japan, once your spot has been claimed, nobody will intrude. How polite are the Japanese?! This is how the hanami spot competition works in Japan.
When the time finally comes, unpack your delicious goodies, take out the playing cards and enjoy the petals floating down towards you with your friends and family. Hanami isn’t just for daytime either! Some parks have special lighting or lanterns set up so you can view the cherry blossoms at night too. They’re eerily beautiful and a must see if you’re ever venturing to Japan for cherry blossom season.
It’s All About The Japanese Picnic
If there’s one thing Japan does right, it’s food! Am I right?! A Japanese picnic is the perfect way to enjoy hanami with your friends and family with a colourful collection of bento (lunch boxes). Some people make their own bentos, others buy snacks from the supermarket or convenience stores. Typical foods to enjoy are karaage (fried chicken), takoyaki (grilled octopus balls), ebi-fry (breaded fried prawns), onigiri (rice balls) and tamagoyaki (sweet rolled omelette).
There are special traditional Japanese desserts called sakura mochi which can only be enjoyed during hanami season! It’s a rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a salty cherry blossom leaf; absolutely to die for!
Hanami dango are another sweet treat; three sweet dumplings colored typical spring colours of green, white and pink and served on a skewer.
One thing that goes well with wonderful weather, cherry blossom viewing and yummy foods is a crisp beverage. Unlike the UK, in Japan it’s actually legal to have a drink in most public spaces. You can have a drink outside under the sakura; a well loved Japanese drinking custom. The best beverages are sake and beer, chuhai (Japanese spirits flavored with fruit juice) and for the non-alcohol drinkers, a nice cool cup of tea or soft drink.
Cherry Blossom Viewing Etiquette
It’s vital to respect Mother Nature but also your fellow cherry blossom viewers. A very Japanese habit that must be observed; take your shoes off before you step onto the picnic mats. Rubbish must be collected and either disposed of in a bin or if there is no bin it must be taken home with you. Respecting the cherry blossom trees is also very important; absolutely no climbing or breaking off branches! Follow these simple rules and you’ll be golden.
What Is The Cherry Blossom Meaning?
Although only subtle meanings, sakura are thought to represent good fortune. As we know the cherry blossoms bloom in late March/early April which also happens to be the time when people tend to start work, change departments at work and the start of the new school year. Just as the cherry blossoms burst into bloom, it’s a representation of hope for those students and workers to burst with success for the new, challenging but exciting year ahead.
Another representation is that of love and femininity; love for the life you have, love for the brief time that you have on this earth and love for being able to appreciate the beauty of sakura and other precious moments in life. The cherry blossoms are like our lives; so short and fleeting so we should make the most of it and appreciate the time we have. Isn’t that a beautiful sentiment? The Japanese have a saying “mono no aware” which is translated into “the pathos of things”.
What that means is we should have empathy and appreciation towards others and things as nothing is forever. This impermanence and short life span of the cherry blossom mimics that our lives. There’s some food for thought…
Interesting Facts About Cherry Blossoms In Japan
Hanami can be dated back to as far as the Heian Period (794-1185) and were exclusively reserved for nobility only. Nowadays anyone and everyone can enjoy the blossoms together so make sure to grab your blue sheet and marvel at the beauty. Phew! Do we have any rugby fans reading this? The rough and burly Japanese national rugby team proudly uses the dainty sakura as their logo, how’s that for irony?
There’s a unique and very useful weather forecast done especially for cherry blossoms; The Cherry Blossom Forecast which allows you to see maps of the blossoms, when they’re in full bloom and blooming expectancy! People can plan their hanami perfectly weather-wise… if you ask me I think that’s blooming brilliant.
Sakura (cherry blossoms) are so well loved that some parents even name their daughters Sakura! In fact, Sakura is one of the most popular female names in Japan. Cherry blossom tea is usually served at very special ceremonies and events such as weddings as a token of luck for newlyweds and celebrants. Finally, the national flower of Japan is… the chrysanthemum (you thought I was going to say sakura didn’t you?) and it is the imperial emblem printed on the cover of Japanese passports, can be seen at Japanese embassies abroad and at Shinto shrines too… however the cherry blossom is considered the “unofficial” national flower of Japan (you can remember that last little fact for the next pub quiz night).
Hanami is a special part of Japanese culture that holds dear to many. Not only is it about getting your ‘drink on’ whilst munching delectable treats, spending good, quality time with your loved ones and being at one with nature with the pink and white petals dancing down towards you as you… how quintessentially Japanese does that sound? It’s about appreciation of life. If Japan and the precious tradition of cherry blossom viewing has taught us anything, it’s to be sure to live in the essence of the moment, a touching sentiment that we seem to forget in our busy day-to-day lives. From us here at Zak Zakka we wish you a splendid spring and hope it brings with it the start of many successful endeavors for you and yours.