There is hardly a natural phenomenon as closely linked to Japanese beauty, culture, and philosophies as the fleeting cherry blossoms. Majestic trees stretching their rose crowns towards the sky, tiny petals being whirled around by spring winds, and the pleasantly aching knowledge that this breathtaking beauty will perish after only a few days – this is the image of sakura.
To make use of the brief time span in which the cherry blossom can be experienced in full bloom, a matter of only a few days, people of every age and occupation gather underneath the trees – to admire, to ponder, and to celebrate.
What is Hanami?
This custom is known as hanami, simply meaning “flower viewing,” and a synonym for public picnics, friends, and families huddling down under the trees with food and drink. The custom of “flower viewing” is so much more than just one big spring party, however.
Hanami’s century-old roots reach deeply into Japanese history. The custom can be traced back to the Nara period (710 ~ 794), even though people back then admired ume, a plant species related to both the plum and the apricot. In contrast to sakura, ume’s bloom lasts from January to the end of February – a span of almost two months.
Like many things, the practice of flower viewing was inspired by the Chinese Tang Dynasty. What sakura is for the Japanese culture, ume is for the Chinese, leaving its beautiful traces in poetry, philosophy, and literature. Once the custom of admiring flowers in full bloom had settled in Japan, however, the uniqueness of sakura was noticed rather quickly.
The Philosophy of Cherry Blossoms
What sets sakura apart from a blossoming ume or wisteria tree? The answer lies in the petals’ brief lifespan – shortly after the flowers have fully developed, the wind starts whisking them away. Sitting under a sakura tree, it is impossible to not be reminded of the brevity of its splendor. The passing of time is what defines the sakura philosophy. The small, fair petals are not only a beautiful natural spectacle but a metaphor for life itself.
This acceptance of the nature of things is what defines the philosophy behind sakura and the very reason why, in the end, it was the cherry and not the plum which has inspired countless poems, pictures, songs, dances, novels, and various other works of art and thought. Nothing seems more reminiscent of human mortality than the sakura.
Cherry Blossom Varieties
Japan is home to over 200 varieties of cherry trees, both wild and cultivated. Sakura trees can vary in blossom color, petal number, branch shape, flower size, and more. The five-petaled, pink cherry blossom is the typical representation of sakura, with the most popular representative being the Yoshino.
Any cherry blossom with more than five petals falls under the umbrella of yaezakura. It is not uncommon for yaezakura varieties to have dozens of petals on a single blossom while weeping varieties of sakura trees are easily recognized by their downward sloping branches, reminiscent of weeping willows.
Another variety of cherry tree worth mentioning is the Sunlight Sakura, or Yōkō Sakura. This hybrid was developed by teacher Masaki Takaoka, who wished to create a sakura tree that could withstand both hot and cold temperatures, and be able to grow anywhere on earth. The Yōkō Sakura was dedicated to the many students taught by Takaoka, who were drafted and lost to the Second World War. Today, Sunlight Sakura remains a symbol of resilience, peace, and friendship.
How to Hanami
Hanami literally translates to "flower watching" and is an annual celebration of Sakura and spring time. People gather around cherry blossom trees with family and friends to enjoy delicious drinks and food under the beautiful pink trees, often with the petals gently snowing from the branches when in full bloom.
Want to participate in this exciting tradition? While hanami can consist of one person having a drink under a sakura tree, a few preparations for bigger parties can make the event much more enjoyable. Many hanami supplies can easily be found at 100 yen shops.
What to Bring to Flower Viewing
・Tarp/Picnic Sheet - Different sizes are available depending on your group size.
Disposable plates, cups, utensils - Hanami is a picnic after all, these will help share your food and drinks.
・Garbage bags - While hanami is an occasion to enjoy, following the rules of the park or area is important. Make sure to clean up after yourselves once the part is over.
・Paper towels and wipes - There is bound to be a spill sometime during the hanami, be ready to clean things up.
・Kairo - With hanami season beginning from March, temperatures may not quite be warm yet. Japan's convenient heat packs can keep you warm while you enjoy your time.
・Food and drinks - Many parks and streets usually have vendors selling drinks and treats, but for those on a budget, buying food and drinks beforehand can save some money.
Helpful Tips for a Perfect Hanami
In famous parks like Ueno or Yoyogi, the places under the cherry blossoms are often quickly taken and is quite unavoidable. To prepare for this, some groups do not hesitate to designate someone to reserve a spot by coming early in the morning and placing a tarp. This is particularly true when companies want to celebrate hanami - then it usually is a junior member who is sent out in the morning to reserve a nice spot. For any first-timer, there are also other things to keep in mind when looking for a hanami spot. This includes:
・Do not stay close to the walkway. This is especially true for famous parks like Yoyogi and Ueno: the crowd is usually huge and one can be easily overwhelmed by the masses of people.
・Do not stay close to trash cans. Even if it might be fine in the morning, the smell will become quickly unbearable, especially on sunny days. Also, some sites do not have garbage bins. In that case, take your garbage when you leave and dispose it at home.
・Look for a nearby toilet beforehand, and be sure to line up early. The waiting time can sometimes be more than 30 minutes.
・Bring warmer clothes. The weather can still feel quite chilly, especially at the end of the day, when night falls.
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