Every year there is a sakura cherry blossom forecast on TV, it even looks like a weather forecast, but it is all about when the hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season is going to start, and in which area. As the trees become alive with color in each region of Japan, the local people all head to their closest park with food and drinks in tow. They all have the same goal of finding a perfect spot for sitting down and enjoying the flowering cherry blossom trees, which in Japanese is called hanami. People do this with friends, family and even with their work colleagues, they all sit down for a long picnic, and in some cases with plenty of sake, and just have a relaxing time. You might wonder how it all quite works, like what you should take, how you should find a picnic spot, etc., so we have put together the perfect guide to having the best hanami picnic possible.
Essential Hanami Party Food
At a hanami party, you’ll find a variety of Japanese cuisine that can easily be shared with everyone from savory eats to sweet treats. Be sure to pack these essential picnic foods for your sakura viewing.
Japan is amazing for bento, it is a Japanese packed lunch boxes, which can be prepared at home or bought before the picnic. Supermarkets and convenience store always sell these, and there is literally a massive variety of what a bento may contain. Those eaten at hanami parties are called hanami bento, and feature items like makizushi (sushi rolls), inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed in fried tofu pouches), tamagoyaki (Japanese-style omelet), or kamaboko (pink and white fish cakes).
Fried & Grilled Dishes
Meat dishes that can be easily shared and eaten with chopsticks are also popular for picnics in Japan. Again these can be made at home or bought at a supermarket. Party favorites include karaage (boneless, bite-sized Japanese fried chicken), takoyaki (grilled octopus balls), and ebi-fry (breaded fried shrimp).
Tsukemono & Salads
To accompany meat dishes, you can buy or prepare a variety of vegetable dishes like salads and pickled vegetables, called tsukemono. Typical Japanese salads are kinpira gobo (braised carrot and burdock root salad), shiro-ae (blanched vegetable and mashed tofu salad), potato salad, and salads made with hijiki seaweed and lotus root.
Onigiri (rice balls) are another favorite for hanami picnics, as they are easy to transport and come in a variety of flavors, like ume (pickled plum), salmon, and tuna mayonnaise. During hanami season, you can even find sakura onigiri made with salted cherry blossoms, which add a delicate floral taste to the rice.
While most hanami food is meant to be served at room temperature, you may want to bring some miso soup along as the weather may still be cool, especially in the evening. Hot miso soup can be stored in a thermos and poured into cups for everyone to drink.
Sweet Picnic Food
For dessert, sakura mochi is a type of wagashi (traditional Japanese sweet), enjoyed during hanami season. It’s a rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a salted cherry blossom leaf, providing a tart contrast to the delicate sweetness of the rice. Hanami dango are another type of wagashi eaten during hanami, which are sweet dumplings made from rice flour. Three dumplings in green, white, and pink are served together on a bamboo skewer. These three colors are a common theme for Japanese spring sweets.
Strawberries are the seasonal spring fruit in Japan, making them also a popular hanami dessert. They can be eaten plain or with sweetened condensed milk drizzled over them. Other fruits like oranges and kiwi fruit are also popular in Japan. It’s a good idea to wash, peel, and cut these fruits into bite-sized pieces before digging in.
Sake and Beer
Sake is the traditional hanami drink, and Japanese people affectionately refer to sake drinking under the cherry blossom trees as hanami-zake. Beer is also very popular, with many breweries releasing seasonal beer can designs decorated with cherry blossoms. You might see some people who work together enjoying beer or sake at their work hanami, which can get a bit loud.
An original Japanese cocktail, chuhai is a carbonated beverage made with shochu (a distilled spirit similar to vodka) and fruit juice. Served cold, many find it refreshingly crisp even on a cool evening under the sway of blossoms.
Hanami drinks don’t necessarily mean just beer and sake. Many people also drink cold and hot tea, or a soft drink. Especially if you are responsible for preparing drinks for your party it is a good idea to keep in mind that not everyone will be wanting to see a 100 litre sake barrel or beer keg. Normally there are a variety of sakura-flavored drinks on sale during the hanami season as well.
Setting Up Your Hanami Party
There are a few essentials you’ll need to throw the perfect hanami party. The first is a large picnic blanket for everyone to sit on; you can even get a woven straw mat or a large plastic tarp, which in Japan they call a leisure sheet. These can easily be found at 100-yen stores and variety shops, like Daiso and Don Quijote. Though not required, some groups also bring short folding tables to hanami, or you can create a makeshift table by using upside-down cardboard boxes or plastic crates.
However the most important thing not to forget, besides food and drink, are items such as plates, cups, and chopsticks. Disposable serving ware is available from convenience stores and supermarkets, but the environmentally conscious may want to pack non-disposable options. Once the sun goes down, sakura are often illuminated with hanging lanterns well into the evening. Sakura season tends to be chillier in the evenings, so it’s a good idea bring along some blankets or warm clothes as well.
Hanami Party Etiquette
Before throwing a hanami party, it’s essential to first check that the park allows picnicking. This can be confirmed on the park’s website or on signs at the park itself. It’s also important to keep in mind that some parks may not allow drinking, so check before you go if possible.
Reserve Your Spot
Everywhere, particularly parks in big cities, such as Tokyo, will become busy pretty fast once the hanami season gets into full swing. So to guarantee your spot for your own hanami picnic it is best to go very early and reserve a space with a sheet, and for the sake of politeness it is best if someone stays with that sheet until everyone else in the group has arrived. Unfortunately, there is no other way of reserving a place.
Take Your Shoes Off
A picnic blanket is just like a Japanese house; you knock on the door and take your shoes off before entering. Well, there might not be a door but you do need to take your shoes off. It might not matter to you what you do on your own picnic blanket, but when you are with friends, work colleagues or even family, then you should remember this Japanese rule. Leave your shoes at the edge of the blanket.
Pick up your rubbish
Unlike Glastonbury, or other outdoor music festivals, it is really essential that you either take your rubbish with you or find a rubbish bin. While the blossoms are out people will be coming every day to have a picnic under the trees, so you can imagine what would happen if everyone left their rubbish after their picnic. In Japan a healthy respect for public facilities and areas is a must.
Respect the Sakura Trees
Hanami is about looking at the beautiful trees, rather than climbing them, or breaking off branches. It might seem like an idea to take a branch of sakura blossoms home with you, but then you would be damaging the tree, and even possibly exposing it to harm from pests and diseases. It is enough just to admire the beauty of the trees while sitting underneath the branches of beautiful flowers.
Where to Dine When a Picnic Space Can’t Be Found
If you fail to find a space to set up your picnic then you might try just walking through the park and enjoying the different beautiful views that you can see – at a picnic you can only see one perspective, whereas people who are walking around can discover the many beautiful sights of sakura blossoms. You can follow this up by going to a nearby restaurant to eat while you share your photos with your friends back home.