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March 2020

Cultural Article

Hanami: Cherry Blossom Viewing

by Tomomi Dodd

Hanami, meaning ‘flower viewing’, refers to picnicking in the vicinity of sakura (cherry blossoms) in Japan. While the blooming period of cherry blossoms varies every year, it is usually between the end of March to beginning of April in Tokyo. During Hanami season in Japan, people gather with friends, family, coworkers, classmates, and club-mates to enjoy food, drinks and the company of others. There are several different species of sakura, but the Yoshino cherry is most common. The earliest flowers bloom around January in Okinawa, and the latest around May in Hokkaido.

( Hanami at Shinjuku Gyoen 2012 by Dick Thomas Johnson is licensed under CC BY 2.0 )

It is said that hanami’s origins are from the Nara period (710–794), and initially centered around plum blossoms, which bloom earlier than sakura. The focus switched to cherry blossoms during the Heian period (794–1185) as aristocrats held flower-viewing parties under the cherry blossom trees of the imperial court in Kyoto. At these early celebrations, aristocrats wrote poems about the blossoms. Hanami gradually spread from the elites to the samurai, and eventually to the common people.

People head out to parks that have cherry trees and set up tarps to sit on to have a picnic. People bring prepared bento boxes or buy food from supermarkets and convenience stores. Sometimes they are quiet family affairs, while other times they are loud and drunken gatherings with coworkers and friends. Also, sweets popular during this time are a pink, white, and green dango (dumplings) made from mochiko (rice flour), to be eaten during hanami. In this typical color combination, the pink, white, and green represent the blossoms of springs, the snow of winter, and the leaves and grass of summer.

Sanshoku Dango -three colored dumpling

( Dango by Joey is licensed under C C By 2.0 )

The special attention paid to cherry blossoms is due to their fragility and short lifespan, which is an idea of “wabi-sabi,” a traditional Japanese aesthetic. They represent life, reminding us of our vulnerability and encouraging us to make the most of our short lives. People feel this sentiment when they see the petals fall like snow at the end of the season. Then again, their popularity could be more to do with aesthetics – whether seen close up as a single flower, or from a distance as a pink and white cloud, cherry blossoms are exquisitely beautiful.

Some recommended places for hanami in Tokyo are; Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden , Chidorigafuchi, and Yoyogi park. My recommendation is Chidorigafuchi, an area around the moat of the Imperial Palace, where the trees get lit up at night. There is also a spot in Chidorigafuchi where you can ride a boat and view sakura. The view is surrealistically beautiful, and it almost feels like you are in heaven! (Granted, you may need patience to wait in a long line for the ride.)

People riding on boats at Chidorigafuchi, Tokyo

( Lunchtime stroll: Chidorigafuchi and Tokyo Tower with Cherry Blossoms by Big Ben in Japan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 )

At this time, with fears of COVID-19 and recommendations for social distancing, hanami viewing is not advisable. In fact, some parks will likely not be open for this reason in Japan. However, during this period of quiet and solitude, my hope is that we will gain an even greater appreciation for the cherry blossoms and our chances to meet with friends and loved ones under them. Then, when life has returned to normal, and if you have not yet been to Japan during hanami season, I highly recommend for you to visit the cherry blossoms for an exquisite experience!

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