Strolling among the blossoming cherry trees in Washington, DC has been a cherished rite of spring for more than a century in the Nation's Capital. But in the trees’ homeland of Japan, the tradition of viewing the cherry blossoms, known as 'hanami,' dates back more than 1,200 years!
Hanami season in March and April is, for many Japanese, the best time of year. This is when the cherry blossom trees all over Japan come in to bloom for between seven and 10 days and people hold outdoor parties to view them. The name says it all - hana means “flower” and mi is “to look”.
Hanami is one of the most popular events of spring. Crowds of people - families, groups of friends, and groups from companies sit under the fully open cherry blossoms, usually on plastic tarps, and have a picnic celebration (a hanami party!). The picnic fare consists of a wide variety of foods, snack foods, and saké (alcoholic beverages including rice wine, Nihonshu) or other drinks. The activities often include dancing and karaoke in addition to the cherry blossom viewing. In very popular places such as Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park in Tokyo the competition for prime picnic spots is intense. Company groups and family members claim spots by arriving very early in the morning and sitting all day long until the real celebrations begin in the evening. It is not unusual to see a young man in a business suit sitting under a cherry tree early in the morning reserving a space for his company. The new employees are traditionally given this job of sitting all day long to reserve space for the company celebration.
This is a great time of year to visit Japan as the weather is perfect – warm, but not nearly as hot as summer, and everybody is in a party frame of mind. The advent of the blossoms not only heralds the end of a harsh winter but also the beginning of another school year and a new fiscal year for businesses, so celebrating hanami can be a party to celebrate a new beginning.
Spring is a very busy period – accounts have to be finalized, reports finished, and karoshi (death by overwork) is said to peak in March. Deadlines, school graduation ceremonies, government transfers - and then, in April, come the cherry blossoms like a breath of fresh air. This marks the nation's change of focus from hard working to hard playing, people start new jobs and make new friends, both at school and at work. Impressive quantities of saké are drunk, food is barbequed and songs are sung.
The fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms is symbolic to the Japanese. They liken the petals to the life of the samurai – a brief explosion of color, bright for the duration of their short life, before they wither and die. They represent the brevity of life and the frailty of existence, and this is celebrated by getting roaring drunk on copious amounts of saké.
Since the Heian Period (794-1185) flower-viewing parties were popular among the aristocracy. In the Azuchi Momoyama Period (1568-1600) the cherry blossom viewing spread out to the rest of the population. The first hanami took place in the seventh century. Originally a religious rite, it was held on a particular day and the coming harvest was forecasted from the condition of the cherry blossoms. The full blooms were symbolic of a full and bountiful harvest of rice, which the upper classes would celebrate by drinking and eating under the trees.
Short plays were performed and women wore brightly colored kimonos or happi coats. It was not until the end of the seventeenth century that hanami became popular among the working classes. The parties have changed little since then and are much like a big picnic.
Revelers take along food, host a barbeque or buy food from stalls that line the paths. One popular snack is dango, a chewy treat made from rice flour. Another is sakura mochi, red kidney-bean paste wrapped in a salt-preserved cherry blossom leaf. Families and workmates gather under the tees. They sing, drink, eat and talk until late in the evening, when lanterns light the parks and couples step out.
Cherry blossoms, or sakura, have captured the imagination of the Japanese and appear frequently in everyday life. There is a Sakura Bank, and when naming a child, the Japanese often incorporate the character for sakura in the name. The word itself even serves as a not-uncommon girl's name. The cherry tree motif graces the back of 100 yen coins, and the first song many Japanese children learn is called “Sakura, sakura”.
Hanami now has huge commercial appeal. In mid-March an abundance of themed chocolate, beer and clothing hits the shops. You would be lucky to find a product that has not re-branded itself for the fleeting period. All the shops turn pink.
The state of the cherry blossoms is also revealed to millions through the media. There are "sakura forecasts" – with pink dots covering maps of Japan on television and in the daily newspapers. This is followed by information on how to find the best displays, the areas where the season has finished and where it is just beginning. Hanami parties are planned around these reports. A sort of “sakura fever” grips the nation for the duration of the fragile blossom’s life.
As seen in the image, are you planning on celebrating hanami this year with us in Washington, DC? Join us for a "mukojima" on the Potomac!