What is Hanami?

During the  very short period of spring when cherry blossom trees are in bloom,  Japanese people enjoy the traditional activity called ‘Hanami’, that is admiring the beauty of the flowers. There is also another term for viewing cherry blossom trees at night, yozakura, for which the most popular Hanami places are usually lit up with decorative lanterns or spot lights.

Cherry trees and the rice paddy god

During spring, we can see Japanese farmers bedding out rice-plants in the terraced paddy fields. During ancient times in Japan, the New Year was in spring, and the blooming cherry blossoms marked the beginning of the spring planting season. From this, the Japanese believed there was a relation between the flower and the rice paddy god. In Japanese, the cherry blossom is called ‘sakura’. Originally, ‘sa’ refers to the rice paddy god and the word, ‘kura’ means ‘a seat for god’. Sakura then means ‘a sacred place for the rice paddy god to dwell’. The Japanese also believed that gods lived in the mountains and would come to villages when the planting season would start. Blooming cherry blossoms were a favorable sign that the gods were coming to the village. The god would then go back to the mountain with appreciation from the people for a full harvest in autumn. A similar legend can be found at Mt. Yoshino, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its cherry trees (click on the link to read our article).

From Shrine Rituals to today’s Hanami

Ancient farmers would pray, make offerings and have a feast, believing that cherry blossom trees would bring a full harvest. The feast under the tree was similar to a religious ceremony during these times and it slowly changed into a festival for enjoying cherry blossoms in the Nara period (710~794). During the Heian period (794~1192), the cherry blossom appeared in many waka poems and the flower became a national image to the Japanese. During the Edo period (1603~1868), common citizens started having banquets under the trees. Noawadays, Hanami is held as an annual event everybody longs for.

Middle schoolers in front of the 360 years old ‘rock-breaking cherry blossom tree’ in Morioka city, Iwate prefecture.

Cherry blossoms as a symbol for impermanence

‘Takizakura’ tree in Miharu city. Photo by Yuri Suzuki

The cherry blossoms bloom only once a year for just one week or two at best. In Japan, it coincides with the beginning of the school year and the fiscal year, and the hanami season is synonym for a fresh start.  However, one reason why the cherry blososms are so important for Japanese people is that cherry blossoms express life and transience at the same time, echoing a concept from Buddhist philosophy that “all worldly things are transitory”. This may sound sad, but what the cherry blossoms imply is that everyone can change anytime and people can change themselves forever. It also teaches us the happiness of continuous life. Cherry blossoms are flowers that are full of hope.

Takizakura tree in Miharu city. Photo taken by Yuri Suzuki.
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Writer/ Translator

I love Japanese folkcraft article, traditional handicrafts and antiques. I’m seeking the Japanese people’s religious outlooks and its origins that are behind Japanese people’s unique sense and techniques rooted in the ordinary life.