In Japan, there is nothing more culturally significant in the springtime than cherry blossoms—the pink, heart-shaped petals that descend from the sakura trees lining pathways and rivers. Not only is the arrival of sakura blossoms a sign that spring has come, to the Japanese, it is a sign that another chapter of life is beginning. In order to understand why the Japanese do hanami, which is the act of sitting beneath the cherry trees to watch the petals fall, you need to first understand the history behind the cherry blossoms.
The Origins of Hanami
First, let’s take a look at the word hanami (花見), which is the conjugation of two words “hana (花),” meaning “flower,” and “miru (見る),” which means “to look.” Since the early periods of Japanese civilization, when Nara was thriving, around 710-794, there is even artwork depicting courtiers and commoners alike looking up at plum and cherry blossoms in amazement.
It is believed that the idea of looking to blossoms came from the Tang Dynasty in China, but it wasn’t until the samurai age that hanami became a purely Japanese pastime. During the time the Tokugawa Shogunate had control in the 1600s, a proverb about life appeared that stated: Flowers are sakura, men are warriors (花は桜木、人は武士 [hana ha sakuragi, hito ha bushi]), which meant that the greatest flowers are cherry blossoms, and the greatest men are warriors.
In essence, the Japanese see the life of samurai as the life of sakura, where the warrior bursts into action just like sakura bloom, only to have life flit away, like those very petals dancing on the wind.
Once the samurai class was abolished and the Meiji Restoration took over, the meaning of hanami shifted slightly. Since school starts and new employees enter employees right around the time sakura begin to bloom, the Japanese started to see sakura as a new beginning in their lives. Thus, while the practice of hanami didn’t end with the samurai, the meaning behind it changed.
To this day, people continue to roll out their picnic blankets, crack up some bottles of beer and sake, and share food and stories with one another while the cherry blossoms fall.
When and Where to do Hanami
If you plan on visiting Japan to do some hanami of your own, then you can start in the middle of March, since cherry blossoms have been blossoming earlier than normal these past for years. Tune into the Japan Meteorological Agency or NHK to watch the Cherry Blossom Front, a tracking service that monitors all 59 sample trees across the nation to see where the sakura are. Hanami season begins around January on Okinawa, Fukuoka around the end of March, starts in Tokyo and Kyoto in March and April, and ends with Hokkaido in the beginning of May.
The best places to see some hanami, including the following parks:
- Shinjuku Gyoen National Park, Shinjuku, Tokyo
- Ueno Park, Ueno, Tokyo
- Yoyogi Park, Shibuya, Tokyo
- Sankeien Garden, Yokohama, Kanagawa
- Moerenuma Park, Sapporo, Hokkaido
- Lake Kawaguchi, Yamanashi
- Nara Park, Nara
- Koriyama Castle, Nara
- Osaka Castle, Osaka
- Senkoji Park, Hiroshima
In short, hanami is more than just the season when cherry blossoms cover the streets and lawns in pink and hordes of people are drinking in the parks. Hanami is a time that brings people together in the spirit of newness throughout the country. It is the perfect time to lounge at the park, look up at the trees, and marvel at how fast life can pass you by, so you must treasure the moments as if it was the last cherry blossom to ever fall.
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