Hanami: Japan's Sakura Blossom Season

1st April 2021 | by Andrew

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Hanami (花見, "flower viewing") is the Japanese tradition of witnessing the beauty of flowers. The word "hana" means flowers and is almost always used when relating to the cherry ("sakura"), though it can also refer to the blossom of plum ("ume") trees.

Pops of cherry blossom are beginning to appear across most temperate countries thanks to gifts of Sakura trees from Japan over the centuries. These days, they are a ubiquitous symbol of early Spring across the world, but we dare to ask… given the choice, where would you rather be: sat under a tree in Brighton with your meal deal triple sandwich, grab bag of crisps and can of ready-mixed G&T, or under another sky, a Japanese one, next to a delightful specimen of Prunus Yedoensis, being seduced by an exquisitely prepared bento lunch and Japanese craft beer? 

Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is one of the most well known events in Japanese culture. People gather to enjoy the breeze of flower petals that softly fall around them as they sit under the trees indulging in lavish picnic feasts - this picture-postcard perfection we imagine is, in fact, very real, and thankfully not just for the marketing literature!

The origins of hanami traditions are not very well known, but as the bloom coincides with the rice planting season it’s understood to have a strong connection, and some believe that it’s a message from the gods to get to work! There are also records of people celebrating the trees for aesthetic reasons as far back as “The Tale of Genji” in the 11th century and possibly for hundreds of years before then. 

Hanami is deeply ingrained into Japanese culture. Most people will experience a flurry of texts and emails proposing weekend blossom plans as soon as the season arrives, ranging from family and friend gatherings to corporate events which are, of course, variously enjoyed or dreaded by those taking part. 

There is, undoubtedly, a rush to visit Japan during late March, to be there at ‘peak blossom’, and here at Selective Asia we often suggest avoiding this period unless you’re super-keen. There are always high numbers of people trying to catch a glimpse of the best blooms (everybody reads the same advice), not just international tourists but locals too, so if you’re determined to get involved be prepared to queue (which we Brits are already highly skilled at!)

There are some superstar destinations across Japan for Sakura viewing, the most famous being Maruyama Park in Kyoto and Chidorigafuchi in Tokyo. These destinations are very well known, and in densely-populated cities, which inevitably makes them very busy despite, of course, being beautiful and highly organised. They are still great spots for a stroll, but to keep things organised there are a few extra rules, which vary per park, but often include no picnics and/or no alcohol.

Having offered that insight on places you may want to avoid if crowds are not your thing, the good news is that, wherever you are in Japan, getting to view the blossom on your terms is always possible. It’s dotted absolutely everywhere with most municipal authorities ensuring an ample sprinkling of trees. Most main parks offer organised experiences with a parade of yatai (stalls) selling yakitori, karaage, takoyaki, beer, etc. These really come into their own in the evenings, with lanterns strung down park boulevards accentuating the beauty of the flowers. Viewed squintingly under a blossom-drunk haze it’s an almost dreamlike experience. 

In my opinion, the smaller parks really are the best, particularly if you don’t mind bringing your own food. You might have noticed that many images of hanami picnics include people sitting on a blue sheet? These mats are essential, as the grass around the trees is often a little sparse and it can get muddy, so they make it a waterproof experience. You can pick one up during the season at every conbini (convenience store). 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most hanami events become all about the food and drink. Food in Japan is very seasonal and Spring is one of the best. You may want to get hold of some fresh takenoko gohan (bamboo rice) - a wholesome rice dish with young bamboo mixed in, and perhaps a little fried tofu too. It really is lovely. You could pick up some ebi fry (fried, breaded shrimp) or sakura mochi, which are blossom-inspired rice cakes with a sweet bean centre wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf. You’ll find all of these seasonal treats as ready-prepared bentos in every supermarket. Having said all that there are no rules, and if you look hard enough someone, somewhere will be eating a pizza. 

Hanami is a joyous event for everyone in Japan. The early parties are mostly enjoyed by families, and when they retire the atmosphere becomes a little more elevated, inhibitions are lowered, and a real party atmosphere takes over. The celebration can be felt everywhere: the winter is over, and it’s a time of rejuvenation and new life in the sun. 

We can all raise a glass to that. Kanpai!

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