We’ve all seen those amazing photos of blossom taken in Japan. The sakura (cherry blossom) season has just begun over there, but celebrations go beyond a simple stroll through the trees. Many Japanese people organise hanami (flower viewing) parties beneath the trees, with the partying sometimes lasting all day and well into the night.
The tradition of hanami dates back to around 700AD, when the abundance of the blossom was said to reflect how well that year’s harvest was likely to do. It also marked the start of the rice-planting season and people believed the trees were inhabited by gods so made offerings to them.
During the heian era, Emperor Saga extended the tradition by holding feasts, accompanied by large amounts of sake, beneath the blossoms in his imperial court in Kyoto. Initially the celebrations were kept to royalty, but they soon became widespread. Poetry was often read at these gatherings as sakura was popular with poets as it provided the perfect analogy for life – beautiful and luminous yet ephemeral and gone in an instant. Blossom only lasts for around two weeks and is at its most magnificent a week after its initially bloomed.
In modern Japan, the hanami celebrations are so popular, people often save a spot for days in advance of their event by spreading out their picnic blanket. As the Brits listen out to the weather forecast for rain, the Japanese have blossom forecasts to let them know when the best blossom fronts are likely to appear.
The parties themselves usually involve a picnic, often featuring dango (sweet rice balls) and bento boxes, plenty of sake and all accompanied by music. It’s not unknown for DJs to set up and play, festival-style, to the crowds that have gathered. At night, hanami is known as yozakura and often the trees are decorated with lanterns, adding a further magical dimension to the festivities.
Whilst most people head to their local park or somewhere nearby for hanami, other people make trips to castles, temples and shrines, which add to the spectacle of sakura in full bloom. The oldest cherry tree in Japan is said to be around 2000 years old. It’s known as the Yamatak Jindai and is in the Yamanashi prefecture. Nowadays, it’s branches are held in place by stakes and people aren’t allowed to get too close to it, for obvious reasons.
Hanami parties are now thought to be held in over 20 countries worldwide, usually those with a big Japanese community.
Find out the best places in Japan for seeing cherry blossom by visiting http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2011.html
The UK has a blossom trail in the Vale of Evesham – however, they don’t encourage you to party beneath the blooms as most of the trees are commercial fruit trees http://www.visitwychavon.com/attractions/theblossomtrail/