With the beginning of spring in Japan comes Hanami (花見) or ‘Flower viewing.’ The most famous occasions of hanami take place around the spring bloom of cherry blossom – or, as I like to call it, ‘the pink blizzard of happy fun times!’ I’m waiting for the name to really catch on.
During this time the whole country goes nuts for cherry blossom. There’s a painfully-detailed forecast released around January every year that shows exactly when your area will experience the cherry blossoms, from bud to pre-bloom, to full bloom to falling. See GaijinPot’s excellent example below. (Er, thanks… – Ed.)
Sakura-themed products begin to fill store shelves with an array of weird taste combinations (think: sakura soba noodles and tofu with sakura salt) and sales of blue tarpaulin surge. All anybody talks about on TV is cherry blossom, every website will try and woo you with their Ultimate Guide to Cherry Blossom and every advertisement in every public place will be pink.
So what exactly is hanami?
I’m glad you asked. 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. Hanami started out as a personal pamper party for the Emperor and his chums but quickly spread to the rest of the country.
Although it was originally a party to appreciate nature, I like to think it was a bit different. Maybe after a war (as they had a lot of those back then) a bunch of people just decided that sitting around and looking at pretty trees was a better prospect than trying to poke each other with katanas.
So, with all of my friends already sick with sakura fever and the cherry blossoms soon headed to a park near me, I decided to investigate the madness and ask: is hanami actually all that fun?
Yes: It’s a great chance to experience Japanese culture
Appreciation of nature aside, hanami is literally a festival where everyone, from salarymen to tourists, rubs shoulders with the sole purpose of having a good time. It’s an experience so uniquely Japanese.
Beyond this, you’ll also be treated to a host of different events, parties and separate festivals going on at the same time. You’ll always leave a hanami festival with countless memories of what you did and saw.
Nope: It’s so crowded you barely have a chance to do anything
Hanami brings out the crowds. It’s like being on a Yamanote train but times 1000. 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.
Alternatively, you might be able to replicate the experience by sitting on your balcony, painting yourself pink and gorging on whatever food and drink you have in the house.
Yes: You’ll see some amazing views
Going back to the roots of flower watching, you’ll be treated to some absolutely stunning views. The waves of people, coupled with the sea of pink leaves is an incredible sight. You’ll easily be able to upload any picture to Instagram accompanied by unique hashtags like #pink, #japan, and #imlostwherearemyfriends.
Nope: You’ll spend a lot of time in the queues for the toilet
With hanami comes the consumption of copious amounts of food and liquids that really don’t like to hang around in your body for too long. At hanami, the queues become a different beast. You might only have four or five toilets serving a crowd of a few hundred.
Yes: You’ll easily meet new people
Hanami is a great experience to let the general atmosphere, and any liquid confidence, fuel your Japanese ability – you’ll rapidly find your group mixing with those around you; with food, drinks and good times being shared.
Two great friends of mine were made during hanami when a group nearby were playing a board game and invited a few of us over to play. Although at first, we focused on discussing the fragility of life as embodied by the fleeting presence of cherry blossoms, it quickly descended into what our favorite food and drink were.
Nope: You might have to guard the tarp parking space with your life
Due to hanami often being at the start of the new working and school year, companies will often hold hanami parties as a “welcome” party too. However, if you’re a new worker or just the unlucky draw in your friendship group, this can be a very depressing time as you’ll be the one who has to secure a good spot for the party.
I once overheard a tour guide, in Ueno park, telling his group that companies will often send out their new employees (or maybe the person who reheated fish in the microwave that one time), to find a good place in the park before the crowds get there – often before 6am.
Hanami really comes down to what you might consider fun. I myself love it. It’s an excellent excuse for me and my friends to get together, eat some homemade food, drink some beers, look at the flowers, and see who can last the longest with a full bladder. You know, the usual stuff for a Friday night.