Hanami (Cherry Blossom Viewing) (花見)
Hanami is a custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers, especially cherry blossoms and the arrival of spring. However, hanami almost always means a party to be held under cherry trees with blooming flowers.
Cherry trees are seen all over Japan, and since cherry trees in the same region blossom at the same time during Spring and the flowers fall in a short time, often only lasting around two week, the cherry blossoms are very impressive and are seen as an important seasonal symbol for Japanese people and harbingers of Spring. The short period in full bloom and the beauty of the flowers are often likened to the fragility of human life. Because of this, it has been said since ancient times that cherry blossoms make people go mad, and in fact, viewers have often caused mayhem at Hanami parties. To enjoy admiring cherry blossoms and drinking Sake (alcohol beverage) is called hanamizake and is considered a refined custom. Based on the philosophy of Yin and Yang, the Yin of cherry blossoms and the Yang of the picnics are complementary.
Hanami is believed to have originated in an event which was performed for the nobles during the Nara period. During the Nara period, plum blossoms which were just brought in from China were viewed, but cherry blossoms were blooming all over during the Heian period. The change in people's interest was reflected in waka poems, and "Manyoshu" (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) contains 40 waka poems for cherry blossoms and approximately 100 waka poems for plum blossoms, however, those numbers were reversed in "Kokin Wakashu" (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry) of Heian period. The word 'Hana' (flowers) started to mean cherry blossoms around this time.
According to "Nihon Koki" (Later Chronicles of Japan), Emperor Saga held an imperial festival of the cherry blossom called 'Hana no en no setsu' in 812 at Shinsen-en Temple. It's thought that this was the first viewing of cherry blossoms on record. The place to hold this event was changed to the Imperial Court in 831, and this event was gradually being accepted as one of regular programs organized by the Emperor. The hanami scene was described in 'Hana no En' of "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji). While there is a description of a feast admiring Japanese wisteria in "Genji Monogatari," 'Hana' (flower) had been used as a synonym for cherry blossoms by that time, so a feast admiring flowers other than cherry blossoms was not meant to be called hanami or hana no en.
Kenko YOSHIDA explained the difference between a noble-style hanami and a countryside style hanami in "Tsurezure Gusa" (the Essays in Idleness), and it is learnt that even the local samurai warrior society was enjoying a hanami feast in the early Muromachi period.
It is believed that the custom of hanami was widespread among ordinary people in the Edo period since Yoshimune TOKUGAWA had cherry trees planted in many spots in Edo and encouraged people to view the cherry blossoms. Mt. Atago (Minato Ward) is one of the most famous Hanami spots in Edo. Rakugo (Japanese comic story telling) stories about hanami during this period are "Nagaya no Hanami" (Hanami at tenement house) and "Atamayama" (Mt. Head).
Actual information about hanami
In every March, the Japan Meteorological Agency announces the timetable for the blooming of cherry blossoms all over Japan, and the line connecting the areas where the blossoms will bloom on the same date is called the cherry blossom front. This cherry blossom front is based on Someiyoshino (Prunus yedoensis), so the blooming date may slightly vary depending on the types of cherry trees.
In more than half the areas of Japan, the blooming period is April, which coincides with the beginning of the fiscal year for companies and the start of a new school year for Japanese schools. However in certain parts of Kyushu, the Chugoku and Shikoku Regions cherry blossoms start blooming in March when school children are on holiday ahead of the start of a new term for school, and in the Tohoku Region and Hokkaido cherry blossoms start blooming in May.
Meanwhile, because of global warming and climate changes in recent years, since the 1990's cherry blossoms have started to bloom earlier and since 2002 in regions west of Kanto, hanami has been held in March rather than April.
Originally, there was no custom of holding hanami parties in Okinawa Prefecture. The typical cherry tree of Okinawa Prefecture is the Kanhizakura (Taiwan cherry) and it blooms in January when Kyushu and other regions north of Kyushu are in midwinter. Similarly, the custom of hanami is not as common in eastern and northern Hokkaido, and instead, it's a custom to enjoy a feast called 'kanpukai' (maple-leaf viewing) during the season of autumn leaves.
Viewing cherry blossoms at night is called 'yozakura o miru' or 'yozakura kenbutsu,' and it is unique to cherry blossoms. Some famous spots such as Ueno Onshi Park temporarily display paper lanterns for yozakura (night viewing of cherry blossom).
Sakura fubuki (lit. blossoms falling) refers to the simultaneous falling of petals and the beauty of such state is admired as part of hanami, and after all petals have fallen from the trees they are called Hazakura (leaf cherry trees).
It is thought that hanami is not complete without hanami dango (rice dumpling). Since the Edo period, hanami dango have been an indispensable part of ordinary people's hanami picnics. In contrast to tsukimi dango (rice dumpling for moon viewing) prepared for tsukimi, hanami dango are bright like cherry blossoms, pink, white, and green. The combination of these three colors is common, and pink represents cherry blossoms as the sign of spring, white represents snow to express passing winter and green represents Yomogi as an early sign of summer.
The proverb 'hana yori dango' (dumplings are preferable to flowers) has its origins in the eating of dango at hanami parties and makes fun of people's tendency to choose a more tangible substance such as dango over the abstract act of viewing flowers. There are more proverbs, 'Hana ni arashi,' 'Hito no ikuteni michi ari, hana no yama,' etc.
Even a single cherry tree or plum tree is enough for enjoying hanami. When hanami is held under a cherry tree or plum tree which is designated a natural treasure, or a historical cherry tree or plum tree, a tea-ceremony place is often set up.
The prospects for Hanami
The most hanami in Japan is to enjoy viewing Someiyoshino trees in many areas. A majority of the Someiyoshino trees around Japan are getting old. Because of this, old Someiyoshino trees have been replaced with young trees in many parks, and the time they bloom varies significantly. For example in the Tomoyama Park (see picture) an attempt to extend the life of a trail lined with numerous cherry trees is accomplished through the efforts of alternately planting Someiyoshino trees, Kawazu cherry trees and Yoshino cherry trees.
Because the various cherry trees bloom at different times, there has been a slight change in the period of hanami.
Hanami related issues
Some organizations stake out large spaces for hanami well ahead of schedule. Some revelers cause disturbances or danger such as karaoke, fire or smoking, and their behavior bothers other viewers and breaks laws. Some picnickers fail to clean up after the party.