Hanami, Flower Viewing

Hanami, a time for celebration of nature but also of life when the cherry blossoms bloom each year. A big party for a blossom that lasts such a short time.

Pale white or darker pink blossoms begin to bloom on the knobbly cherry blossom branches and a whole country watches in breathless anticipation as more and more of the fragile flowers appear. Television stations and other media broadcast the sakura situation to their millions of viewers, detailing where blossoms are not yet begun, where they are almost in full bloom, where they are almost over and, of course, the best place to see the perfect display. Train stations show boards with pictorial representations of the state of the flowers next to place names and people flock from one end of the country to the other to see the best displays.

The brief perfection of the sakura has inspired many a Japanese poet and author as well as foreign writers who compare the flower to lives of famous but short-lived people and the ravages of time. Each blossom is only at it's best for few days of the year although there are some who prefer the snow-like effect of the bloom's end or the blanket of pinky white spread beneath the branches that results once the blossoms fall. Some tell tales of the sakura which resemble the story of the Ugly Duckling where the resultant flower is perfection.

Sakura buds, stems and flowers are commonly seen in both Ikebana and other floral arrangements as well as in folding screen and lacquered box paintings and on kimonos and fans and songs and stories extol their virtues. Their presence is incorporated still in most artistic aspects of Japanese life, both traditional and modern.

The event

The sakura or cherry blossom is Japan's national flower and blooms in late March to April every year at various times depending on the weather and the location. People go to shrines and parks for the blossom viewing or 'hanami'. These blossoms only bloom for a short time each year and people everywhere wait avidly for news of what is the best location each day. Companies and families send out members early to try to reserve the best spot under the trees to have a celebratory party. With karaoke and sake (rice wine) and lots of food, there is good cheer all around.

Trees are hung with lanterns so that partying can continue throughout the night and the sakura looks ethereal and almost artificial in their reflection. While the real cherry blossoms decorate parks and shrines, artificial blossoms adorn shop fronts and streetlights making this a festival difficult to miss. Many towns have street parades with floats, stalls and music adding to the noise of celebration all around.

The history

The first hanami took place in the late 17th century when people gathered under the cherry blossoms to eat and drink and sing. Short skits were acted and brightly coloured kimonos were a common sight. The political situation at the time was such that many restrictions had been placed on the Japanese people so this was a rare occasion where they could gather and enjoy themselves without fear of retribution for their actions.

Being at the beginning of spring, these hanami also welcomed the gods who would bless the rice fields in rural areas although this has now been forgotten in all but the most traditional regions of Japan.

Hanami has changed little since these early times although of course it now has its commercial appeal. But, it is certainly one of those to see when you are in Japan. What is difficult is firstly getting your timing right with the blooming as you can easily miss out if the season begins too early or too late due to unseasonal hot or cold weather. Secondly, this is one of the peak times for travel in Japan and hotels and domestic travel can be booked many months in advance or extremely crowded. Thirdly, the sites themselves will be crowded, particularly places like Kyoto in the south of Japan and Ueno Park near Tokyo, 2 of the most magnificent displays of cherry blossoms. Despite all this, the hanami is a true Japanese tradition as well as being a magnificent visual spectacle and, perhaps you will get an insight into the Japanese culture through this not-to-be-missed festival.

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