Why is the Hanami Festival so Special to the Japanese?
For about two weeks of the year the famous Cherry Blossoms or 'Sakura' flower in all their fleeting glory marking the beginning of Spring. As the trees bloom weather independently, they are not in flower throughout the country of Japan at the same time. Usually they will flower between March and April, areas with a milder winter in the south start coming into flower sooner and the north later. Each tree flowers for no longer than the average of two weeks giving them the symbolism of the impermanence of beauty and the concept that nothing lasts forever.
Hanami translates to the 'viewing of flowers', therefore the Hanami festival is 1000 years of the dedication of the Japanese people to acknowledge and appreciate the beauty of the cherry and plum blossoms coming into flower. These iconic symbols of the Japanese culture came to symbolise the wabi - sabi philosophy and brought hope and renewal to the people each Spring. The first available historic appreciation of the sakura is images of high ranking samurai in the 1500s posing in front of the beautiful flowers as they were encouraged to appreciate the arts. The trees over time then became an inherent symbol of peace and the elite culture of Japan. Over time large scale plantings of the trees made it accessible for the commoners to also have access to and enjoy the season of hanami. In later years the sakura have become more widely accepted as representing birth and rebirth over the status of the samurai in their culture.
The Hanami or flower viewing is a party and celebration time in Japan. It is known the plum blossoms are less of a tourist attraction and this is where you will most likely find the elderly Japanese who want to skip the crowds and noise and sit in appreciation of beauty. But for the rest of the country the Cherry blossoms are the most popular. The people have picnics and parties under the trees and it has become a very famous tourist attraction. The locals will cook meals and have BBQs, pick their spots well in advance to get the best view and by nightfall the sake takes effect as the picnics become parties and the people celebrate in good nature revelry and the welcoming of Springtime.
The Hanami is a time for community, friendships and family. It is a time to come together and celebrate beauty and good company. Food is the second most popular attraction at this festival time. There are some specific home made foods cooked at this time and as well as sake, green tea is also popular and in the older days poetry and writing also took place at these festivals.
Shops in the sakura areas will stay open later and parties in the larger parks closer to the cities bring forth thousands of people at once which turns into discos and loud occasions with food trucks and dancing. You'll rarely find any available space to sit. To avoid this type of action try to visit the parks further away and smaller as you will find peace and the serenity which once brought about the spiritual concept of wabi sabi and hope to the people.
The oldest living cherry blossom tree is the Yamataka Jindai and it lives in Yamanashi Perfecture, and it is said to be about 2000 years old and is still flowering every year for hanami. There are scientists that predict the flowering season every year now based on the weather events and if you are headed there remember it is only just Spring so pack for the cold!