Spring is traditionally the time for renewal, for starting over, for saying good bye to the coldness of winter and welcoming the rebirth of the warmer season with open arms and open hearts. There are many great places in the world for welcoming the spring season, but arguably one of the best places is Japan. Why, you may ask? Because Japan has one of the most famous traditions of welcoming the Spring. This Tradition is known as Hanami, and if you happen to be in Japan during the Hanami period, this is something that should definitely not be missed during any early spring trip to Planet Japan.
If you're in Japan at this time, you might have noticed the sudden increase in tourists in the cities, and especially a sharp increase in the number of visitors to parks. My first year in Japan, this surprised me a lot, until I went to a park. These people are here to enjoy Hanami. Made up of the two characters for Flower (花）and "to see" (見), it means an opportunity to let lose, go to a park, find a cherry blossom tree and enjoy the beautiful surroundings with friends, good food, and of course, lots of Sake.
This ancient tradition dates back all the way to the Nara Period (710-794) at which time it was ume (plum) blossoms that people admired. Cherry blossoms, or Sakura (桜) became famous during the Heian Period because of the famous Novel Tale of Genji. In those days, most people believed in Kami, or gods, living inside the trees and made offerings for the upcoming rice-planting season. Traditionally reserved only for the elite, or upper class, this ceremony soon spread to the Samurai Class, and then the common people as well during the Edo Period. Of course there was plenty of Sake enjoyed all around, and that's certainly one part that has been ceremoniously upheld to this very day, particularly by the hordes of younger people all over Japan who hold epic Hanami parties; some lasting for three days or longer. Oh to be young again......
Sakura, or Cherry Blossom season usually starts around the end of February in Okinawa (warmest place). Then, the trees start to bloom all over Japan from South to North from the middle-end of March to April on Honshu Island, and bloom until May in Hokkaido. Since the Sakura season is extremely short in each city (lasting around two weeks), some people follow the Sakura trail to travel and enjoy the mesmerizing flowers all over Japan.
During this time, people from various parts of Japan and internationally, flock to the various parks to secure a spot underneath the trees to just relax with friends, have a feast, wash everything down with copious amounts of alcohol, enjoy the coming of spring, start over for the new year (Japanese fiscal year and school year starts in April) and muse over the flowers being a metaphor for life: Beautiful while they last, yet fleeting and impermanent.
These prime spots are so sought-after that some people go to the parks many hours, or even days before the actual party, just to keep the spots "reserved" for their party, meeting friends, a romantic picnic with their partner, etc. There are even rumors that in days past company Executives used to send the "freshmen", or new employees out to the parks all night to secure a spot so that they (execs) could enjoy Lunch under the trees. Whether or not that's actually true is debatable, but either way this myth conveys the reverence Japanese people have for Sakura and Hanami.
As I mentioned above, for many people a Hanami Party also marks the end of a very long year working hard, and one last chance to let lose and party till the last Sake bottle is empty before the start of the new Fiscal Year.
The usually somewhat reserved Japanese really DO let lose during this time and invite friends, family, and even complete strangers to share their food and drinks in the parks. Although fun all around, this is no laughing matter for your liver, so be prepared. :D
Although there's no special rule for what food to bring, the popular choices seem to be Onigiri (rice balls), Norimaki (what most people overseas consider Sushi), Karaage (fried chicken), and Dango (rice flour dumpling) for dessert or as a snack.
Of course, the most popular drink is Beer, which is consumed in copious amounts by young and old alike, followed by Nihonshu (Sake), Shochu (Ricewine), and of course Soda for the kids.
So, if you're ready to join the festivities, here are some Hanami Do's and Don'ts….
This isn't a cart blanche for public urination, Frisbees and soccer balls kicked into neighboring parties, littering, fighting, tree molestation, impromptu bonfires and general asinine behaviour. These are not acceptable forms of behavior here.
Also, please Don't forget to bring a bunch of garbage bags, because the japanese generally get together to clean up after the party.
Got all that? Great! Now you're ready to join a Hanami Party and partake in the Festivities either in Japan, or in various other countries.
Even though Sakura has become synonymous with Japan, there are many Cherry Blossom Festivals all over the world recently. Here are some of the more well-known examples:
But of course, nothing beats the original, so plan your trip now for next year - it's definitely worth it. Should you find yourself in Japan now, run, don't walk to the nearest park since Sakura time is almost over. Why are you still reading this? Grab your camera, call your friends, and go out to the nearest park….. I know I am!
See you there!