Guest Author - Jillian Michelle Williams
With the arrival of spring comes one of Japan’s most popular springtime activities: hanami, or cherry blossom viewing.
Hanami literally translates to “flower viewing” in Japanese, but it most often refers specifically to viewing of sakura, or cherry blossoms. There are over one hundred varieties of cherry trees in Japan, with blossoms ranging in color from dark pink to pure white, though most are of a lighter pink or white shade.
When the sakura blossoms begin to bloom, hanami parties and cherry blossom festivals are held all throughout Japan. Parks, castles, temples, shrines, and even local neighborhoods are all popular places to enjoy hanami. Many of these places are so popular that it is not uncommon to find people sitting outside early in the morning in order to reserve a spot for their friends, family, or co-workers to enjoy later in the day. Sometimes all spots are completely taken before 8 AM, reserved in advance even though the parties will not begin until the majority of people arrive after they get off work.
Once the festivities finally begin, however, crowds of people flood the parks, sitting on tarps, enjoying food and drink, as well as each other’s company, in addition to the beauty of the cherry blossoms. Dancing and karaoke are also popular activities. Sometimes the festivities last until late hours of the night, ending just in time for it to start all over again the next day, with someone else’s party. Hanami celebrations continue for as long as the cherry blossoms are in bloom, which really isn’t very long at all. Hanami season is very short, which probably explains why there is such a maddening rush to enjoy the splendor of the sakura’s fleeting beauty before it is completely gone. Even the media closely follows the status of the blooming cherry trees, announcing the sakurazensen, or blossom forecast, as it is predicted each year by the weather bureau.
For most of Japan, hanami season occurs at the end of March or beginning of April, but cherry blossoms bloom as early as January in the southern, subtropical Okinawan islands and as late as May in the northern island of Hokkaido. In total, hanami season lasts only about two weeks, with full bloom occurring about a week after the first blossoms begin to open. By the end of week two, the blossoms are already falling off the trees. Even this sight is as beautiful as it is saddening, for it often looks like it is snowing as the blossoms gently float to the ground and cover the earth with a blanket of white. Perhaps it’s their way of bidding us a final farewell, at least until next year, when hanami season will be ready to spring upon us again.