When cherry blossoms bloom in Japan, people of every age and occupation gather under the trees for hanami: a time to admire, ponder, and celebrate.
Hanami (花見, literally “flower viewing”) is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers.
Flowers (hana) in this case almost always refer to those of the cherry (sakura) or, less frequently, plum (ume) trees.
From the end of March to early May, cherry trees bloom all over Japan, and around the first of February on the island of Okinawa.
The blossom forecast (桜前線, sakura-zensen) “cherry blossom front” is announced each year by the Japan Meteorological Agency, and is watched carefully by those planning hanami as the blossoms only last a week or two.
In modern-day Japan, hanami mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the sakura during daytime or at night, called yozakura (夜桜) literally “night sakura”.
A more ancient form of hanami also exists in Japan, which is enjoying the plum blossoms (梅 ume), which is narrowly referred to as umemi (梅見, plum-viewing), popular especially among older people, because they are calmer than the sakura festivals, which usually involve younger people and can sometimes be very crowded and noisy.
The practice of hanami is many centuries old.
The custom is said to have started during the Nara period (710–794) when it was ume blossoms that people admired in the beginning.
But it was by the Heian period (794–1185) when sakura came to attract more attention and hanami became synonymous with sakura.
Hanami was first used as a term analogous to cherry blossom viewing in the Heian era novel “The Tale of Genji”.
Sakura was originally used to divine that year’s harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. People believed in kami (the spirits, phenomena or “holy powers” that are venerated in the religion of Shinto) inside the trees and made offerings.
Emperor Saga of the Heian period adopted this practice, and held flower-viewing parties with sake and feasts underneath the blossoming boughs of sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto.
Poems would be written praising the delicate flowers, which were seen as a metaphor for life itself, luminous and beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral.
This is said to be the origin of Hanami in Japan: the custom was originally limited to the elite of the Imperial Court, but soon spread to Samurai society and, by the Edo period, to the common people as well when, under the sakura trees, people had lunch and drank sake in cheerful feasts.
Today the Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami, gathering in great numbers wherever the flowering trees are found.
Thousands of people fill the parks to hold feasts, and sometimes these parties go on until late at night. Usually, people go to the parks to keep the best places to celebrate hanami with friends, family, and company coworkers many hours or even days before.
The teasing proverb “dumplings rather than flowers” (花より団子, hana yori dango) hints at the real priorities for most cherry blossom viewers, meaning that people are more interested in the food and drinks accompanying a hanami party than actually viewing the flowers themselves.
“Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees!” is another popular saying about hanami, after the opening sentence of the 1925 short story “Under the Cherry Trees” by Motojirō Kajii.
Similar celebrations take place in Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, and China, and also in the United States, hanami has also become very popular.
In 1912, Japan gave 3,000 sakura trees as a gift to the United States to celebrate the nations’ friendship. They were planted in Washington, D.C., and another 3,800 trees were donated in 1965.
Hanami is also celebrated in several European countries, including in Finland, where people gather to celebrate hanami in Helsinki at Roihuvuori, while in Stockholm there is an annual festivity in Kungsträdgården where lot of people celebrate hanami.