When spring turns a corner, Japan transforms into a wonderland of blushing hues, with countless places to view the fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms. There are few natural phenomena as closely linked to Japanese beauty, culture and philosophies as the short-lived pink blossoms beloved by the people of Japan. The cherry blossom season is a special time of the year that not only attracts locals but photographers and travellers from all over the globe.
There is one keyword that encompasses Japan’s love for the captivating cotton candy-coloured flowers: hanami (花見) which combines the kanji for “flower” and “look”. This traditional custom brings the young and old together for a week to enjoy the transient nature and fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms.
Cherry blossoms can be found all over the world, but nowhere else celebrates the coming of spring quite like Japan. With more than 600 different species of cherry trees from white to dark pink, Japan makes the most of these exquisite flowers with hanami.
Hanami means “flower viewing” and it’s the traditional custom of enjoying the beauty of cherry blossoms. It is synonymous with picnics with friends and family huddling together under the pink cherry with food and drink. It’s a joy-filled occasion where people of every age and occupation gather under the delicate blushing blossoms to admire, ponder and celebrate.
In ancient times, it was believed that cherry blossom trees enshrined deities such as mountain and rice field gods. For this reason during the turn or spring, farmers used to make offerings to cherry trees and pray for a good harvest. As time passed, this tradition assumed different meanings and styles. During the Heian era (794-1185), aristocrats would admire the pink blooms and be inspired by their beauty and composed poems about them. But it wasn’t until the Edo era (1603-1867) that it became popular for commoners to go out on a picnic in spring and admire the flowers, in a similar style to the hanami of today.
Fun fact, the Chinese characters to write ‘sakura’ in Japan have evolved and changed over time. Originally the ‘sa’ was written as the word for god which was commonly used to refer to the god of rice fields. ‘Kura’ represented a pedestal used to honour a god with offerings of food and sake. When the cherry blossom bloomed, it was believed to be a sign that the gods had come down from the mountains and it was time to plant rice.
The custom of hanami is so much more than a big spring party. Throughout the year, the Japanese love to celebrate the colours of nature from enchanting wisteria tunnels and sunflower fields to breathtaking hydrangea walks found in ancient temple grounds. But what sets cherry blossoms apart from all other flowers?
The answer lies in the cherry blossoms’ brief lifespan. Shortly after the flowers have fully developed, the wind whisks them away reminding spectators of the brevity of their splendour. The passing of time is what defines the philosophy of cherry blossoms. The small, light-coloured petals are a metaphor for life itself.
Nothing is more reminiscent of human mortality than the cherry blossoms. This acceptance of the natural passing of time is what defines the philosophy behind sakura and explains the reason why its blooms have inspired writers, poets, artists and more for centuries.
Hanami can just be a stroll in a park, but it traditionally also involves a picnic held under the blooming trees. Famous cherry blossom spots can get very crowded, and the best picnic spots are fiercely sought after.
In popular parks and gardens, it is common practice to reserve a picnic spot long before the party starts. The typical practice is to spread one’s picnic sheet early in the morning and either mark it with the group’s name and the party’s starting time or have someone sitting three the whole day until the rest of the group arrives. Be aware though that in some parks it is not allowed to leave a picnic sheet unattended.
There’s no hard or fast rule as to what to eat at a hanami, but the Japanese love to mark special events with seasonal dishes. By tradition, the prevailing colours of the food are pink, red and orange in honour of the spring season.
Thanks to anime, bento (Japanese packed lunch boxes) are well known around the world. Bento can be prepared at home and brought to the picnic. Supermarkets and convenience stores always sell these with a wide variety of ingredients. During the cherry blossom season, shops will offer hanami bento which feature items like makizushi (sushi rolls), inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed into fried tofu pouches), tamagoyaki (Japanese-style omelet), pumpkin salads, shrimp and more.
Typically, sakura mochi is enjoyed at hanami parties. It is a type of traditional Japanese sweet which coloured rice containing red nea paste wrapped in salted cherry leaves.
Hanami dango is another type of traditional sweet eaten during these spring picnics. It is a sweet dumpling made from rice flour and served in the spring-time colours of white, pink and green.
Strawberries are another popular hanami dessert. They’re eaten plain or with sweetened condensed milk drizzled over them making for a perfect Instagram shot.
Japanese drink companies waste no time in advertising their drinks plastered with images of pink sakura petals. Traditionally, sake is served at hanami parties, but again there’s no strict rules.
Beer has quickly become a popular contender amongst the younger demographic with breweries releasing seasonal beer cans decorated with cherry blossoms. Does it taste any different to normal beer? Who knows, but it does make a hanami all the more fun.
Take Your Shoes Off
A picnic blanket is just like a Japanese house; you knock on the door and take your shoes off before entering. Well, there might not be a door but you do need to take your shoes off. It might not matter to you what you do on your own picnic blanket, but when you are with friends, work colleagues or even family, then you should remember this Japanese rule. Leave your shoes at the edge of the blanket.
Pick up your rubbish
It’s essential that you take your rubbish with you when you’ve finished a hanami. There are not many public bins around, but that doesn’t mean that you should litter. The cherry blossoms bloom for less than 2 weeks which means that people will be coming everyday to view or have a picnic under the trees. Be mindful of this and respect the public facilities by leaving them in a clean state.
Respect the Sakura Trees
Please don’t climb on the trees or break off the branches. While it might seem like a good idea to take a branch of cherry blossoms with you home, it would essentially expose the tree to harm to pests and diseases. Cherry trees are fragile and require a lot of care. Lay back and enjoy the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms and take lots of photos to look back on the magical moment.
It goes without saying, hanami brings out the crows which isn’t exactly the ideal activity to participate in for the immediate future. It can be like being on the train during rush hour, but instead of standing shoulder to shoulder and avoiding eye contact, everyone is drunk and yelling.
But if that doesn’t faze you, then you can find hanami spots from iconic to secluded all throughout Japan. There are countless articles listing off the best spots to view sakura in the main cities of Japan from Tokyo, Osaka to Kyoto. But for those that are based out in the sticks, these are some of our recommendations that are worth the trip.
- Goryokaku in Hakodate
- Shizunai Nijukken Road in Hidaka
- Matsumae Park in Matsumae
- Moerenuma Park in Sapporo
- Shibazakura Takinoue Park in Mombetsu
- Hirosaki Park in Aomori
- Kakunodate Samurai Residences in Akita
- Kitakami Tenshochi Park in Iwate
- Kajo Park in Yamagata
- Mikamine Park in Miyagi
- Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima
- Tsutsujigaoka Park in Miyagi
- Takamatsu Park in Iwate
- Odawara Castle in Kangawa
- Sankeien Garden in Yokohama
- Tsurugaoka Hachimangu in Kamakura
- Hill HItachi Fudoki in Ibaraki
- Kumagaya Sakura Tsutsumi in Saitama
- Takasaki Castle Ruins in Gunma
- Hikone Castle in Shiga
- Nara Park in Nara
- Kaizu Osaki in Shiga
- Koriyama Castle in Nara
- Negoroji Temple in Wakayama
- Wakayama Castle in Wakayama
- Tsuruma Park in Nagoya
- Iwakura Gojo River in Iwakura
- Takato Castle in Ina
- Kenrokuen in Kanazawa
- Okazaki Park in Okazaki
- Takada Castle in Niigata
- Four Seasons Road of Yamazaki River in Nagoya
- Asuwa River in Fukui
- Miyajima in Hiroshima
- Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima
- Kurashiki River in Okayama
- Utsubuki Park in Tottori
- Kintaikyo Bridge in Yamaguchi
- Hii River in Shimane
- Ritsurin Garden in Kagawa
- Bizan Park in Tokushima
- Hirakiyama Park in Ehime
- Hyotan Sakura in Kochi
- Kinbuchi Forest Park in Kagawa
- Shiudeyama in Kagawa
- Isshingyo no O-zakura in Kumamoto
- Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto
- Hosshin Park in Fukuoka
- Tadamoto Park in Kagoshima
- Nagasaki Prefectural Saikai Bridge Park in Nagasaki
- Tarumi/Darumizu Park in Miyazaki
- Nakijin Castle Remains in Kunigami
- Yogi Park in Naha
- Nangusuku Park in Nago
- Yaedake Sakura-no-Mori Park in Kunigami
- Sueyoshi Park in Naha