Hanami, literally translated as ‘flower-viewing’ is the yearly Japanese Springtime tradition of celebrating the cherry blossom season. From around the end of March to the beginning of May in mainland Japan, and early February for Okinawa, the country’s millions of trees come into bloom. The blossom forecast (sakura-zensen) is announced every year by the weather bureau, and attentively monitored by those wanting to plan their celebrations under the symbolic flowers. Since 2004 the sakura-zensen has been aided by official blossom monitors; over 10,000 Japanese citizens who are enlisted to painstakingly monitor the state of their local cherry blossom trees throughout the year.
The custom of Hanami dates back to the Nara period (710-794) where people would appreciate the ume blossoms. The practice then morphed into the celebration of sakura (cherry blossoms) as they signified the rice planting season, as well as foretelling the year’s harvest. People believed kami (spirits/holy powers) inhabited the trees and so made offerings, this was followed by the consumption of sake. In the Heian period, Emperor Saga embraced this practice, hosting flower viewing parties with food and sake under the sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. This practice spread to the Samurai people and then subsequently the lower classes. Now thousands of people around Japan congregate in parks around the country, holding feasts and parties which last way into the night.
My experience with Hanami occured on a yearly visit to Tokyo at around the age of eight. Taken to the local Asukayama park by my aunt, we sat on blue tarpaulin sheets under the trees with friends, enjoying the homemade onigiri (rice-balls) we had brought and sipping on cold barley tea. The park was overflowing with people of all ages, families, colleagues and friends. I vividly remember observing the people around me, the busy lives of the Japanese momentarily halted by something as banal as nature. Everyone, from salarymen, to tourists, to the elderly. Those who would not ordinarily encounter each other in everyday life, now flocking to the same places to enjoy the very same things. Japan is known for its technology, its work ethic, the fast paced lifestyle of its citizens, and yet the culture that permeates every area of the country’s framework is equally as significant.
To me, Hanami perfectly captures Japanese philosophy, and in particular the concept of wabi-sabi, a form of aesthetics which centres around the acceptance of fallibility and transience. The appreciation of fleeting beauty and the recognition of nature’s impermanent reality is reflected through the sheer number of people who gather to celebrate an ephemeral yet strikingly significant occasion. Gazing at the blush toned petals, people are unified through the country’s rich and vibrant culture. The cultural traditions of Japan, from Hanami, to Obon, to Yama no hi (Mountain Day) allow people to leave their busy lives on pause and focus on something beyond the superficial. These brief moments of reflection are tinged with an impression of serene wistfulness, here brevity is celebrated.
By Maya Bagshaw