Guest Writer: Aelen#1442
You might remember my article about Japanese cafés not too long ago. Since then, I’ve also grown an interest in Japanese festivals and have been on a reading bender learning whatever I can about them. So let’s talk about hanami! If you don’t know what hanami is yet, it’s a Japanese event centred around the cherries and plum blossoms that bloom all across the nation every spring. In Japanese, it is written 花見, where 花 means “flower” and 見 means “viewing”; thus hanami means “flower viewing”. Of course this is a broad concept, but most of the time, hanami refers to watching the cherry (sakura) trees bloom. Sometimes it’s also referred to as kan’ō (観桜 with 観 also meaning something along the lines of “view” and 桜 meaning “sakura”, so “view-sakura”). This term is mainly used for festivals but hanami is still the more well-known term to describe this time of year.
When the flowers bloom…
Due to the country’s geography, there is a wave of sakura bloomings starting in the south where it’s warmer and ending in the north where it’s cooler. From the end of March until early May the cherry trees bloom all over Japan. However, they may start blooming as early as mid-January in Naha while you may have to wait until early May to see them bloom in Sapporo. In Tokyo, which is near the middle of Japan (latitude-wise) the sakura trees normally start blooming around late March. People look forward to hanami to the point where there is actually a forecast that predicts when the cherry trees will start blooming, since it largely depends on the weather and they only bloom for about 2 weeks.
What you can do during hanami
Keeping in mind that even though it is really popular, hanami is a concept and not an actual festival, which would be hosted based on dates and would often include a free day. Hanami takes place whenever and wherever the sakura trees bloom. One of the reasons why people look forward to hanami is because it gives them a reason to gather in parks and be together. They have picnics or parties with their friends, family, coworkers, etc, all under the cherry trees where they can enjoy being together with a beautiful and scenic view of nature. A lot of welcoming parties are also held like this, because depending on the region, the cherry blossoms often bloom during the start of the school term.
Yozakura, nighttime celebrations
Although it may seem irrelevant, Yozakura is very much related. Doesn’t “zakura” sound similar to “sakura”? That’s because they use the same kanji. Yozakura in kanji is 夜桜. The first one (夜) means “night” and you may recognize 桜 from earlier as the kanji for “sakura”. So “yozakura” literally translates to “night sakura.” It’s a special term used when the parties take place during evenings and nights as opposed to during the day in sunlight. Some parks, such as Ueno Park, even hang temporary paper lanterns (or plain electric ones) just for yozakura.
Hanami through history
Hanami is said to have started during the Nara period, and at the time, people watched the plum trees bloom. That’s why hanami sometimes might also be referring to the plum trees blooming. However, during the Heian era, cherry trees became more famous and hanami gradually became a synonym for cherry blossom viewing instead of the broader, more literal “flower viewing”. While it became popular with nobles, it likely wasn’t so much to appreciate the flowers as much as they wanted another reason to throw parties, similarly to modern day, where hanami has become a reason to simply spend time together outdoors.
Where can we celebrate
Can you view the sakura trees bloom even when you’re not in Japan? Of course, but it’s not likely to be as popular in your country as it is in Japan, nor can they grow in any climate. Some countries will go as far as holding festivals and in some like mine, there’s simply a Japanese garden with cherry trees that gets a bit more attention when they bloom. In other words, you do likely have options, but you’ll have to do a bit of research to learn more.
I hope you enjoyed the information and perhaps if you’re in Japan at the right time, you can go watch the sakuras bloom. I know that I will, if only because it is treated so differently in Japan. I think that Japanese festivals are really interesting, and that’s not just because they are from Japan, but more so because the culture is so different from western culture. It can give you a new perspective on things, and for that reason alone, it is worth learning about.