Japan’s hanami (flower viewing) season is now reaching full frenzy. Thousands of people across the country are joining family, friends and coworkers for parties outside under the blooms. All for the love of sakura (cherry blossoms) — a traditional reason for the festivities and one of the lasting symbols of the country.
The same as flowers have the sakura, so men have the samurai.
This tradition has been a staple of Japanese culture since the eighth century. The samurai class strove to create for themselves an image that would resemble that of the cherry blossom, which was (and is) seen in Japan as the king of flowers. “The same as flowers have the sakura, so men have the samurai,” they used to say. Since the first hanami, as they were first called in the novel the Tale of Genji, the sakura flower became a symbol of elegance and contemplation and a metaphor for life: beautiful but ephemeral.
2018 early blossoms
Because of the blossoms’ limited time, so are the parties that come with them. You’ll need to plan ahead. Depending on where in Japan you are, cherry blossoms will bloom in different months — earlier in the south, later in the north. As soon as fleeting petals start falling, though, they will completely disappear within two weeks.
And this is where things can get complicated: this year, the blooming snuck up on us early with some unusually warm weather — about 10 full days earlier than usual in Tokyo. Locals remember something similar happening in 2015 when the trees started to display the first flowers five or six days earlier than expected. Most people I talked to — especially a surprisingly knowledgeable taxi driver in Kyoto — can’t remember a time when they had to abruptly change their hanami plans to catch up with the blooms.
So, where you can still see them?
If you had originally planned on enjoying this year’s hanami a little later or if you’ve just arrived in Japan and are wondering if you’ve completely missed out on the experience, well, not so fast.
A notable exception is the Kanto, or central Japan, region. Sadly, if you’re traveling to Tokyo this week, you just missed the show. Yet, in other locations, there is still a lot to see. Some of the petals might be falling, but they aren’t leaving the trees bare yet, either. You can still sit under a giant tree in Fukushima Prefecture or walk down a path covered in sakura blossoms up in Miyagi Prefecture — it just takes a little more planning.
Several sakura forecasts in Japan will let you know exactly when the flowers will blossom, when they are going to be in full bloom and even the best time to plan your hanami festivities by location. If you are arriving in Kansai this week, you’ll be living the romantic experience of the pink-and-white petals being carried by the wind and carpeting streams of water — giving you the full opportunity for watercolor-like photos. Like Tokyo, Kyushu has almost completely lost the sakura, but the trees in the eastern and northern parts of Japan are just starting to show the first blooms! Take a look at this map for more details (forecast updated March 29).
This is a very accurate forecast. Despite being available only in Japanese, it’s pretty easy to navigate even if you’re not too familiar with the language. Alternatively, you can check out this other map in English.
So, now that you know you may still be able to enjoy the experience, it’s time for a little planning and preparation. You are racing the clock here!
Where to go? Peruse this comprehensive GaijinPot Travel list for hundreds (yes, literally) of possible places across Japan you could go to enjoy a day (and night) celebrating this amazing rite of spring. Quick — pick and then get your friends and travel plans together.
Party essentials for a hanami
Now some essentials: food and drink. Typically, hanami-goers prepare snacks and dishes at home while more will just buy them in the konbini (convenience stores) and others will even set up small, impromptu barbecues. It’s not uncommon to see groups bringing along camp stoves to cook food on the spot. Do make sure that you’re allowed to do so at the location you choose, though.
If you are looking for some classic and conventional treats, here are some suggestions:
- Sakura mochi: a tasty dessert of sakura-flavored pink mochi with sweet adzuki bean paste inside
- Chirashi sushi: vegetables, raw fish and other toppings over rice
- Onigiri: rice balls with a variety of fillings
- Hanami dango: multi-colored mochi balls mildly flavored with sakura (pink), vanilla (white), and matcha (green)
- Karaage: Japanese-style fried chicken
- Edamame: boiled and salted soybeans
- Miso soup (good for when the temperature drops — and it will after the sun goes down!)
As far as drinks go, choose whatever you enjoy. In Japan, the preferred alcoholic drinks for this occasion are beer, nihonshu (Japanese sake) and canned chu-hai (an alcoholic beverage made with shochu and fruit flavoring). It’s easy to make new friends with a supply of these. Just make sure you also have some bottled water and tea, to whet your whistle or for those who don’t partake.
Now, you’re all set for hanami! Grab a few blankets or tarps to sit on and go find your spot! This part can be more challenging than it sounds. It’s sometimes difficult to find a good spot under the canopy of the trees — especially in the most popular places. So, if you are going, make sure to get there early. Even better, talk to some locals to find some lesser-known areas that often are just as beautiful, but hardly visited at all.
The deep culture, tradition and spiritual metaphor of hanami are not lost among modern Japanese people — but neither have they forgotten the exuberant party spirit that goes hand in hand with it.
If you attend a hanami event or explore the cherry blossoms this year, don’t forget to enter our GaijinPot 2018 Cherry Blossom Contest on social media!