Hanami: Enjoying the Japanese Flower Viewing

There are many things that Japan is famous for. Aside from the beautiful scenery, spectacular snow skiing experience, and rich culture and history, the Land of the Sun is also quite famous for their cherry blossoms. Known as sakura in Japanese, the Japanese anticipate the spring season every year as they are excited to witness the blooming of the cherry blossoms. It is customary for the locals to set dates during this season in order to witness the beauty that is the sakura. This has gone on since way back when to the point that there are now traditions surrounding cherry blossoms. One of these traditions is flower viewing, also known as hanami in Japanese.

Rediscovering History: Group of Facts About the Ancient Flower Viewing

There are two references when a person hears the word “hanami.” Because “hana” directly translates to flower, it can either mean cherry, which is “sakura” in Japanese, or plum, which is “ume” in Japanese. However, it typically refers to sakura. The blooming of cherry blossoms throughout the country begins in late March to early May though it usually begins earlier in the island of Okinawa, which is around the first week of February. The weather bureau of Japan reports the blossom forecast or the “cherry blossom front” every year. Also known as sakura-zensen, this forecast is anticipated and watched by people who are planning hanami as once the sakura blooms, it would typically last for only one to two weeks.  

Another more ancient form of hanami would be umemi, which refers to the viewing of plum blossoms. Older people generally enjoy this more than the hanami as this event is much calmer. Due to hanami being popular among the younger generation, sakura parties tend to be very crowded and noisy.

The history of practicing hanami goes way back. Many people say that this tradition began during the Nara period, which is from the year 710 to the year 794. However, at that time, ume blossoms were all the rage. Come the Heian period, which is from the year 794 to the year 1185, sakura became much more popular and its reference to hanami became more prominent. Since then, “flowers” began to mean “sakura,” both in haiku and waka.

The term “hanami” being used as a reference to “cherry blossom viewing” began in The Tale of Genji, which is a novel from the Heian period. In real life, cherry blossoms were previously utilized to divine the harvest of the present year. They are also used to announce the season of planting rice. This is because many locals then believed that there was a kami, or a Japanese god, inside the cherry trees. Hence, they made offerings to the kami and partook these with sake right after.

This practice was adopted during the Heian period by Emperor Saga. Flower-viewing parties were held during the blooming of cherry trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Sake were drank underneath the trees while the Japanese people enjoyed the party and the view. There were even poems written about the beauty of the cherry blossoms. Sakura was used as a metaphor for life, fleeting but beautiful nonetheless. Hence, this is what many believe to be the origin of hanami in the country.

A popular saying about hanami trees emerged from the opening sentence of a short story entitled “Under the Cherry Trees” written by Motojiro Kaiji. Currently, hanami is generally comprised of an outdoor party or event that is celebrated under the blooming cherry trees during the spring season. These parties can be held either during the day when people can witness the natural beauty of the sakura or at night wherein there are light that further illuminate the exquisiteness of the cherry blossoms.

A Sino-Japanese term that refers to cherry blossom viewing is called kan’o, especially in reference to hanami festivals. Hanami during night time is known as yozakura in Japanese, which translates to “night sakura.” Many people like hanami at night as there are temporary paper lanterns hung in various places with cherry trees such as Ueno Park. Specifically, on the island of Okinawa, people decorate the cherry trees with electric lanterns for people to enjoy with hanami in the evening. These are done on trees like those standing in Mt. Yae, which is near Motobu Town, or those standing in the Nakijin Castle.

What to Expect in A Hanami Festival

One of the most awaited events during the spring season is the hanami festivals. The tradition of flower viewing continues with the younger generation of the Japanese who still enjoy the natural beauty of the blooming cherry blossoms. A number of people gather in places wherein there are blooming cherry trees to witness the first opening of the pink petals. These hanami festivals can gather up to thousands of people who have waited for a whole year just to be able to see the beauty of the sakura. There are some hanami festivals that are only held in the morning and only some at night. However, there are also those that last the whole day until nighttime.

Not less than half of the country experience the cherry blossom blooming season at the same time as schools and work are about to begin after vacation from the winter season. Hence, hanami is seen as a welcoming event and opens to various welcoming parties. Several people visit parks to reserve the best spots even days before hanami as these events can get pretty crowded. Most Japanese celebrate hanami with family and friends along with company coworkers. Celebrating hanami parties under the cherry trees at night is also typical for certain cities like Tokyo.

On the other hand, the blooming of cherry blossoms does not occur simultaneously all over Japan. Spring season, along with the blooming of cherry trees, vary depending on the part or location in Japan. Furthermore, the blooming period of sakura is quite short with the longest time being two weeks. Hence, if one really wants to witness its beauty at its full bloom, it is important to plan and set a schedule ahead of time.

Most hanami festivals occur from the month of March up until the month of May. However, as the blooming period varies depending on the location, there are other regions that hold their hanami festivals in the months of January, February, and June. The specific dates are forecasted and change every single year, formerly by the Japan Meteorological Agency. Therefore, it might be a bit tricky to set a schedule for a specific hanami festival.

The first sakura flowers to bloom are usually those located in the subtropical islands in the southern part of Okinawa. On the other hand, the last cherry blossoms to bloom are usually those located in the northern island of Hokkaido. For those staying in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, the cherry blossom blooming season typical occurs from the end of March to early April. One can follow the cherry blossom front schedule in newspapers and television as it moves from South to North.

While the main attraction of hanami festivals are the beautiful cherry blossoms, there are also various traditional Japanese performing arts in these festivals. Adding to the enjoyment of the crowd, these performances not only showcase the many talents of the Japanese but also remind the locals of their tradition and heritage. Tea ceremonies under the sakura trees are also one of the many experiences that one may get when joining hanami festivals.

A wide variety of foods and souvenirs are also being sold by festival vendors during hanami festivals. These products may include regional crafts and delicacies that the specific region specializes in. Going to hanami festivals may also mean unwinding as activities typically include eating, drinking, playing, and just listening to music. Typical foods that are served in these events are dango and bento, along with Japanese sake.

Food of the Season: A Recipe for Hanami Dango

Maakun at the Japanese language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of hanami dango, it can usually be bought from vendors during the festival. However, one may also opt to try making it at home. Hanami dango is basically a mochi desset in Japan that tastes sweet in the mouth. Comprised of three dango balls skewered on a stick, hanami dango is white, green, and pink in hue. There are various shops that sell hanami dango all-year round but eating hanami dango during cherry blossom festivals is the traditional way of consuming it.

The first step to making hanami dango is to mix 240 grams of mochiko, 240 grams of soft tofu, and 120 grams of sugar in a large bowl. After mixing, one should have a huge dough, which is to be divided into three parts. Put one teaspoon of green tea powder on the first small dough and mix until the dough reaches a uniform light green color. For the second dough, put a few drops of red food coloring and mix well until the dough reaches a uniform pink color. Leave the last small dough white.

After the three small doughs have been prepared, it is time to make balls from each dough. Each small ball should be the size of a tablespoon. After which, cook the small balls per batch of color in a large pot with boiling water. Let it cook for two to three minutes longer once the small dango balls float to the top. Once it is done, it is time to take the dango balls out of the water and let cool on a paper towel. Slide each dango ball of different color into a skewer, and that is it. One can also decorate the hanami dango with small cherry flowers.

Hanami Spots Throughout the Season

Spots for hanami vary depending on the time of the year. The first place that experiences the cherry blossom blooming period this year is the island of Okinawa, with the average first bloom estimated to be in mid-January and the average full bloom estimated to be on the second week of February. With the average first bloom estimated to be in early April and the average full bloom estimated to be in mid-April, next on the list would be Kagoshima.

After this, there are already many places that would experience the cherry blossom blooming period almost simultaneously with the average first bloom estimated to be in late March and the average full bloom estimated to be in early April. These places are Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Osaka, Shizuoka, Nagoya, and Yokohama. After which, it would be the turn of Kanazawa to experience the sakura blooming period with the average first bloom estimated to be in early April and the average full bloom estimated to be in mid-April.

On the other hand, Tokyo will experience the estimated average first bloom in late March and the estimated average full bloom between late March to early April. As for Nara, the average first bloom is estimated to be late March while the average full bloom is estimated to be early April. There are four places that would experience the sakura blooming period around the same time with the average first bloom estimated to be in early April and the average full bloom to be in mid-April. These four places are Matsumoto, Niigata, Nagano, and Takayama.

For the estimated average first bloom in early April and the estimated average full bloom in mid-April, the places to be are Fuji Five Lake Areas, Fukushima, and Sendai. The last places to experience the cherry blossom blooming period are Aomori, Akita, Iwate, Matsumae, Hakodate, and Sapporo. Despite them being the last places to be for sakura season, the experience is extraordinary nonetheless. There are no more sakura blooming during August.