Japan Travel: Hanami


About Hanami, or the Flower viewing.

In Japan, spring is synonymous with Hanami. Written with the kanji: Hana 花  “flower” and mi 見 “viewing”, the word hanami means enjoying the beauty of blooming flowers. In particular, it refers to the Sakura: cherry blossom.

To understand the profound meaning of this magical tradition, Yosa Buson’s haiku is perfect:

“Cherry petals 

in the rice-seedling water, 

moon and stars.”

In these words we read the aesthetic symbolism behind the relationship between nature and human beings in which everything becomes harmonious. Spring is, in fact, a “rebirth”, therefore a renovation of the soul and of the spirit. The falling flowers indicate the transience of things. As flowers reach the peak when they bloom and then fall to be carried away by water, beauty is therefore wonderful and ephemeral at the same time. In Japanese, we can summarize this concept in the small sentence 物の哀れ, “mono no aware”. This aesthetic concept expresses a strong emotional participation toward the beauty of nature and human life, with a consequent nostalgic feeling linked to its incessant change.

Photo Credits:  regex.info

The Roots 

Yoshino hills is where cherry trees originated in Japan. The legend says that in the VII century the priest En-no-Ozuno planted some sakura trees casting a curse on them. The curse would hit anyone who dared to cut the trees down. However, there are those who say that the hanami came from China, at the time of the Tang dynasty, which influenced Japan in the Nara period. Originally, there where the  “ume” (prunus trees) to offer viewers the spectacle of their flowering. During the Heian period (794-1185) however, the Japanese imperial court moved to Kyoto where the unparalleled beauty of the cherry trees outshone that of the prunus.

Murasaki Shikibu, the court-lady that wrote the “Genji Monogatari”, the first novel ever written, used the word “hanami” related to the cherry blossom viewing for the first time. In the beginning, it was a rite restricted to an elite of nobles, dignitaries, samurai and poets, that drank sake and recited haiku on the beauty of the cherry blossom. In the following Edo period, the hanami spread to lower classes as well, eventually becoming a national holiday. This was also thanks to the shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune that planted areas of cherry blossom trees all over Japan.

Photo Credits:  kabekin.com

Between Beauty and Transience, Hanami today

The hanami takes place in a period of time that extends from March to April when sakura reaches their blooming season. Traditionally, people gather together laying out their blue tarps under the trees and, armed with their bento, enjoy the spectacle of nature eating traditional dishes. Among them we can find the hanami-dango, rice dumpling of three colors: pink, white and green, accompanied by green tea and lots of sake. Another typical dish is the sakura mochi, a sweet made of red bean paste and rice, all wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf. And the enjoyment goes on until the evening arrives, culminating in the Yozakura 夜桜 when the night is illuminated by chochin, traditional colored lantern made of paper.

Photo Credits:  thespruce.com

Chasing after the best view

Japan is completely invaded by the simultaneous blooming of the trees awaken from the winter torpor, something that strikes the heart as well as the eye.  But there are places where the charm of nature is more overwhelming than anywhere else. Among the must-see spots there is the Maruyama park in Kyoto, that is famous for the Shidarezakura, the unique weeping sakura. In  Tokyo we can find the Ueno Park with its ancient temples and the Shinobazu pond. The Himeji castle, Hyōgo prefecture, is surrounded by a labyrinth-like wood of cherry trees, while the Hirosaki Castle, Aomori prefecture, is famous for its 2,600 cherry trees. Also, Mt. Yoshino, Nara prefecture, is where 100.000 cherry trees stand out on top of the mountain.