Hanami, springtime, and the sakura
Hanami (花見) is an age-old Japanese tradition of admiring and celebrating the fleeting and fragile beauty of flowers. The word itself translates to ‘flower viewing’ or ‘looking at flowers’, with hana (花) meaning ‘flower’, and mi (見) meaning ‘look/see/watch’. However, hana in this case has come to refer almost solely to the sakura, and hanami almost exclusively to the viewing of cherry blossoms.
Hanami is an annual celebration held around the beginning of spring, when the sakura are in bloom. It has no fixed day or date, for springtime does not arrive in Japan all at once. It appears first in the south of the country, and slowly works its way north, and wherever it passes, the cherry blossoms in all their pastel pink pulchritude emerge in response.
Consequently, hanami is celebrated in mainland Japan anywhere from late March to early May, with people in the prefectures in the south of country, as in Kagoshima and Miyazaki on the island of Kyushu, leading the festivities; and those in the north, in the island and prefecture of Hokkaido, for instance, celebrating much later. In the subtropical island of Okinawa, however, some 644 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of mainland Japan, the cherry trees bloom as early as the middle of January or the beginning of February.
The cherry blossom front
The celebration of hanami lasts only as long as the sakura do, which means that it is very much a short-lived affair, as the cherry blossoms themselves live for no more than a week or two. Also, hanami is most ideally done when the sakura are in full bloom, when the flowers are at their most beautiful, a state which is usually only reached some five to seven days from the time they first emerge, and which lasts for only about a week to ten days. After that, the flowers wither away.
Because of the transient nature of the sakura, the flowering of the cherry trees is a much-anticipated and closely watched phenomenon in Japan. Indeed, the Japan Meteorological Agency once forecasted and monitored the advent and advance of the sakura-zensen (桜前線), the so-called cherry blossom front, across the country – in much the same way it did with the weather and climate! Today, that work is now carried out by private agencies.
The Japanese of course keep track of the blossom forecast with rapt attention and even impatience, eagerly waiting for the moment when the fabled sakura grace the Land of the Rising Sun once more with their ethereal – and ephemeral – beauty.
Park strolls and picnic parties
There is no set place for the celebration of hanami. It is hosted wherever cherry trees grow and bloom – in private gardens or in public parks, and in and around shrines, temples, pagodas, and castles.
And there is no one way to carry out hanami either. It can take the form of something as simple as a solo stroll through a cherry tree-lined pathway, delighting in the beauty of the sakura in silence and solitude.
But traditionally, hanami involves large, lively, and often loud gatherings underneath the cherry trees. There, in the exuberant company of family, friends, and coworkers, the Japanese lay out picnic blankets or plastic sheets and spread out lavish food and drink. They play games, sing songs, swap stories, and engage in such gaiety and merrymaking throughout the day and even well into the night that some end up utterly drunk afterwards.
Indeed, hanami picnic parties are such festive occasions that there are times when they seem more looked forward to than the sakura themselves. In fact, the Japanese phrase hana yori dango (花より団子), which translates to ‘dumplings rather than flowers’ or ‘pastries rather than flowers’, teasingly hints at the real priority for some people celebrating hanami.
Hanami: ritual and revelry
At first, hanami seems nothing more than random revelry, but it is actually a social ritual, and therefore follows some semblance of structure and hierarchy.
For instance, it is customary for the younger members of the family, or the junior employees of a company, to find and reserve a place beneath the cherry trees in which to host the party. It is usually their role to lay out the picnic mats or plastic sheets early in the morning (or the night before), and stay there and wait for their elders and the rest of the group to arrive, usually after work.
The job of locating and securing ideal picnic spots is incredibly important, as hanami parties are wildly popular in Japan, and picnic areas, particularly in public parks and gardens, are very quickly claimed and occupied. As a result, many would-be picnickers find and stake out a place underneath the cherry blossoms hours or even days in advance.
Yozakura: hanami beneath the stars
Hanami is celebrated during the day and even at night. Hanami at night is known as yozakura (夜桜), which means ‘night cherry blossoms’. Come evening, in many of the parks, gardens, avenues, and promenades in Japan, the cherry trees are illuminated with electric lights or traditional paper lanterns, lending a remarkably unique and impressively beautiful look to the sakura.
Locals and tourists alike come out to delight in the night show, strolling leisurely beneath canopies of pink petals illumined with cleverly placed lights; picnicking at the feet of cherry trees bedecked with glowing paper lanterns; or even rowing and paddling small boats and kayaks through rivers especially lit up for yozakura. But just like with regular hanami, those planning to celebrate yozakura must pick and preserve their picnic spots long before nightfall, so as not to lose out on a precious place to relish springtide in Japan underneath the sakura and the stars.
Umemi: hanami, but with plum blossoms
A variant and more ancient form of hanami is the umemi (梅見), where instead of the sakura, it is the flowers of the ume (梅), an East/Southeast Asian tree (Prunus mume) related to the plum and more closely to the apricot, that are sought after. The flowers of the ume are known as plum blossoms, and are, in contrast to the sakura, far more long-lived. They last for nearly two months, usually from January to the end of February.
Umemi, which translates to ‘plum viewing’, is more popular with the older Japanese, as it is calmer and less crowded than the hanami parties that tend to attract the younger, livelier, and sometimes, rowdier lot.
History of hanami
While hanami is a uniquely Japanese custom, it is rooted in the imperial Chinese tradition of viewing and admiring the flowers of the ume, the so-called plum blossoms. And when ume trees were first imported from Tang China to Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794), so also was the practice of plum blossom viewing. The flowers of the ume became objects of fascination in Japan, and the concept of umemi was slowly adopted by the Japanese.
However, during the Heian period (794 – 1185), the sakura replaced plum blossoms as the subject of hanami. In 831, Emperor Saga, after being smitten with the haunting beauty of one particular cherry tree, called for a sakura-viewing party – the first of its kind – in his imperial court in Kyoto. In that festive celebration held beneath boughs brilliant with beautiful, blushing blossoms, not only were food and sake served, songs sung, and poems praising the sakura as metaphors for life written, but the seed of the modern-day hanami party was also sown.
Of course, even before Emperor Saga’s novel hanami celebration, the sakura already figured prominently in Japanese culture. Cherry blossoms were long held a sacred sign of springtide and the planting season; their blooming was taken to mean that the god of the rice paddies had come down from the mountains and it was time to plant rice. And to ensure a bountiful harvest, the Japanese made offerings of food and sake.
Still, it was Emperor Saga who began celebrating hanami is it is celebrated today. His initial sakura-viewing party was followed by another, and another, until it became a regular event in the courts of successive emperors and shoguns. It thence spread to the households of the nobility, and the word hanami was used to refer strictly to the viewing of cherry blossoms, as first instanced in Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji.
During the Edo period (1600 – 1868), hanami spread to the common people as well. In 1720, Yoshimune Tokugawa planted vast tracts of cherry trees as he sought to share the practice among ordinary Japanese folk. Thereafter, throughout the years, across Japan and across all ages, come springtime, the tradition of hanami has been celebrated even as it is now.
Pink petal philosophy
Hanami is an important, iconic, and integral element of Japanese culture. It is a tradition that is deeply rooted not only in history, but also in philosophy. The Japanese regard – and revere – the sakura as a fitting metaphor for life: luminous and beautiful yet ultimately brief and short-lived. Therefore, hanami, a celebration of the sakura, is also a celebration of life and its beauty, transient though it may be. It is a resignation to the fragility, brevity, and mortality of human life, yes, but it is also an inspiration to live life to the fullest, to make every fleeting moment worthwhile, and to leave behind a memory and legacy as beautiful, special, and unforgettable as the blushing blossoms and pink petals of the sakura.