With spring come lovely pink and white hues of sakura (cherry blossoms), and with sakura comes hanami (花見), or “flower viewing.” From late March to early April, the whole country goes nuts for cherry blossoms and eat and drink while basking under the flowers. Hanami is a chance for you to go outside and revel in the few beloved weeks of spring that Japan has to offer before the rainy season hits.
At least it was before COVID-19.
Some foreigners say they’re over all the sakura-themed products filling store shelves with various weird taste combinations (think pink soba noodles and tofu topped with sakura flavored salt) this time of year. They wouldn’t dream of buying yet another blue tarp (people just can’t enjoy the beauty of nature while sitting in the dirt).
But thanks to the coronavirus, people are about ready to start clawing at the walls to get out and enjoy spring. However, we’re still a month away—at least—before vaccines start rolling out.
With everyone sick of being stuck due to social distancing and feeling the sakura fever, maybe it’s time to ask, is hanami really that fun?
So what exactly is hanami?
Hanami started as a personal pamper party for the Emperor and his chums but became a seasonal event for the common folk. It was initially a gathering to appreciate the plum blossoms. During the Heian period (794–1185), plum blossoms fell out of vogue, and people started enjoying cherry blossoms instead. Hanami was first used specifically for cherry blossoms in The Tale of Genji, and may have been what propelled its popularity.
Japanese history has a lot of war. Perhaps during peace, people just decided that sitting around and looking at pretty trees was a better prospect than trying to poke each other with katanas for once. Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, even planted cherry blossom trees to get the locals accustomed to it.
Soon, everyone was admiring cherry blossoms, gorging themselves of food and getting completely hammered on sake.
Today, it’s pretty much the same thing. Families, friends and even coworkers buy drinks, food and blue tarps, and stake out land in parks, near temples and shrines and along river banks to revel under the sakura trees.
Experience Japanese culture
Appreciation of nature aside, hanami is where everyone, from salarymen to tourists, can meet and greet with the sole purpose of having a good time. It’s an experience so uniquely Japanese.
People in Japan are known to be quite shy, but at hanami, everyone opens up. It’s a great opportunity to meet new people and grow closer to your usually cagey Japanese friends and coworkers.
You’ll also discover several events going on during the season. Temples and shrines in particular have huge festivals where you can view cultural traditions and taste Japanese matsuri (festival) food such as yakisoba, wataame, tacoyaki and miso dango.
One of the largest in Tokyo at the time is the Ueno Sakura Matsuri in Ueno Park around the end of March or early April. The park is lined with more than a thousand cherry blossom trees, and at night, a thousand lanterns light up the whole area for spectacular night viewing.
You’ll always leave a hanami festival with countless memories of what you did and saw.
It’s also crowded
Hanami brings out the crowds, which is what we want to avoid for the indefinite future. It’s like being on a Yamanote train, but instead of standing shoulder to shoulder in eerie silence, everyone is drunk and yelling.
If you’re a person who likes to sit in quiet contemplation and avoid large groups of people, then hanami might not be for you. Unless, of course, you can find a secluded spot away from the crowds. Those spots are out there. You just have to seek them out.
With hanami also comes the consumption of copious amounts of food and alcohol. If you’re at a popular park, the queues for the bathroom become a different beast. You might only have four or five toilets serving a crowd of a few hundred.
Alternatively, you might be able to replicate the experience by sitting on your balcony and gorging on whatever sakura-themed food and drink you have in the house.
The views can be amazing
Going back to the roots of flower watching, you’ll find some stunning cherry blossom views all over Japan. Some like Aburayama Citizen’s Forest near Fukuoka and Mount Yoshino near Nara are in secluded mountain locations with sweeping views.
You’ll easily be able to upload any picture to Instagram accompanied by unique hashtags like #pink, #japan and #imlostwherearemyfriends.
But there is so much trash
You would think in an event that celebrates nature people would be a bit more self-aware about leaving trash, but, unfortunately, that is not the case. Every year, thousands of people swarm Japan’s most beautiful parks and gardens with their blue tarps (which destroy the green grass) and leave tons of trash.
It’s so bad, that organizations such as the Tokyo Parks Association have tried to shame people into picking up their dang trash:
— 都立舎人公園 (@ParksToneri) March 26, 2018
“The state under the cherry tree in the park this morning. Unfortunately, some people do not have good manners. We kindly ask for your cooperation in taking out the garbage to use the park comfortably.”
It gets much worse. You’ll find tons of these pictures all over Twitter every year.
If you do go out to enjoy hanami this year, we hope everyone at least takes their trash home.
For 2021 we want to see how you celebrate sakura while social distancing and staying safe from COVID-19. Tag your best socially distanced sakura-inspired photo or home hanami picnic by April 17th, 2021, with #SafeSakura for a chance to be featured on our Instagram!
Follow @GaijinPot and add a caption describing your submission.
Not much of a photographer? That’s all good! You can enter with anything sakura-inspired.
We look forward to seeing your amazing submissions. Just make sure to stay safe and avoid the crowds!