Hanami is the traditional Japanese activity of flowering viewing, in which one enjoys and contemplates the transient beauty of flowers. And, while the word literally means “flower viewing” (“to look” (miru 見) + “flower” (hana 花)), in practically every case, hanami refers specifically to the viewing of sakura (cherry blossoms), though in some cases, its meaning is extended to ume (plum) blossoms, which bloom around the same time.
In Japan, the hanami season is a huge event, both culturally and commercially, with sakura-flavored foods and drinks, numerous festivals and events, and sakura-related activities dominating Japan’s landscape well before the flowers even bloom. Hanami is so important in Japan that the Japan Meteorological Corporation even releases a special forecast entirely focused on determining exactly when the sakura trees will bloom throughout the country.
And, it’s easy to see this love affair with sakura reflected in anime, with the vast majority of series featuring these delicate pink blossoms in some way, shape, or form at least once. From starting the new school year and finding new love, to drunken revelry and quiet contemplation, there’s plenty of beauty, symbolism, and history to take away from the simple blooming of the sakura trees…
Hanami has been practiced for centuries in Japan, with records of flower viewing parties with the purpose of enjoying the ume blossoms dating back to the Nara period (710 – 794) – a practice possibly influenced by the Chinese Tang Dynasty. By the Heian period (794 – 1185), hanami had become increasingly popular as an activity practiced by the aristocracy, with a focus on sakura in particular. Is is around this time that the flowers in poetry, such as tanka and haiku, became synonymous with sakura rather than with any other specific flower. This transition from ume to sakura is believed to be linked to the 894 decree to stop Imperial embassies to China due to reports of unsettled conditions there, which allowed the Japanese to cultivate their unique culture surrounding hanami.
In the Azuchi-momoyama Period (1568-1600), elaborate and extravagant hanami parties were held by the ruling elite of the Imperial Court, most notably by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1598 at Daigoji Temple in Kyoto. This custom eventually spread to the samurai class and, with two centuries of peace at home and abroad during the Edo Period (1600-1867), to the rest of Japanese society. The eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751), also helped spread hanami to the common people through the planting of numerous sakura trees and the creation of several hanami venues in Edo (modern day Tokyo).
Today, hanami is celebrated extensively throughout Japan, as well as in many communities abroad.
Depending on your location in Japan, sakura trees will bloom sometime between March and early May, and will last only a brief week or two before withering away. And, while the window of opportunity may not be very large, a surprising number of events happen in Japan to celebrate the advent of spring and the beauty of the blossoms…
Picnics are probably the most prominent way people like to enjoy the flowers in Japan. When the trees begin to bloom, families and friends will spread a blanket or tarp, bring bento and drinks, and sit under the sakura to enjoy good company, good food, and the beautiful flowers.
Since drinking alcohol in public is allowed in Japan, many of these picnics will involve beer, sake, or other alcoholic drinks, in addition to food… Vendors will often sell food and drink in designated areas in popular parks, and everywhere from department stores to convenience stores will have items for
sale to help you (literally) feed your sakura addiction.
And, the festivities aren’t restricted to just parks during the day! Nighttime viewings of sakura (called yozakura) also happens, and it’s a popular evening activity that’s enjoyed in much the same way as the more visible daytime hanami. Not to mention, hanami will happen pretty much anywhere there is a sakura tree in bloom. Parks, yards, gardens, and even boulevards and sidewalks are all fair game for an impromptu picnic (just check with your local municipality before laying down your blanket!).
And, of course, I can’t talk about cherry blossoms without mentioning the most popular depiction of these iconic pink flowers that is seen in pretty much every anime ever: New students, new beginnings, and the new school year…
In Japan, the new school year begins in April, which happens to be right when the sakura blooms. The blossoms are so strongly connected to the new school year that pretty much every school in Japan plants numerous sakura trees all around its grounds. And, why this connection? Whether it’s the impermanence of youth, the fleeting beauty of adolescence, a reminder to live in the moment, or a sign of renewal, growth, and new beginnings, the sakura blossoms are rife with symbolism and meaning.
Bento of all shapes and sizes are popular, compact meals that are always a staple of a good hanami. Whether you make it by hand at home or buy it from a store (department stores often have an exceptional selection of seasonal bento!), it’s always more delicious outside under the cherry trees…
Sakura mochi is a typical springtime Japanese confectionary made of mochi (glutinous rice cake) filled with anko (sweet red bean paste) and wrapped in a salted sakura (cherry blossom) leaf. It’s a wonderful mix of fragrantly sweet and salty that is unlike anything else. It is traditionally eaten for both hanami and Hina Matsuri (girls day).
Ichigo daifuku is a Japanese confectionary where a whole strawberry is covered in anko (sweet red bean paste) and wrapped in mochi (glutinous rice cake). This sweet treat is a wonderful blend of the fruity, juiciness of strawberries, the smooth, earthy flavor of the anko, and the chewiness of the mochi. And, it’s especially popular during hanami because it just so happens that strawberry season typically occurs between March and May, coinciding with the sakura season!