Yesterday, Jun and I hosted a hanami party at a shrine only a few blocks away from our apartment. I believe I posted about hanami last year, but I think I only posted a few pictures. Hanami (花見 which literally translates to “flower viewing”) is a centuries old Japanese custom where people enjoy the beauty of flowers. Nowadays, these flowers almost always mean sakura (cherry blossoms) or, sometimes, ume blossoms (plum blossoms). From mid January to early May, sakura bloom all over Japan.The blossom forecast (桜前線 sakurazensen, literally cherry blossom front) is announced each year by the weather bureau, and is watched carefully by those planning hanami as the blossoms only last a week or two. In modern-day Japan, hanami mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the sakura during daytime or at night. This year I was unsure if I was even going to be able to enjoy hanami as the weather has been nuts. Thankfully, yesterday was just warm enough for us to enjoy the sakura and eat way too much food.
The custom is said to have started during the Nara Period (710–794) when it was ume blossoms that people admired in the beginning. But by the Heian Period (794–1185), sakura came to attract more attention and hanami was synonymous with sakura. From then on, in tanka and haiku, “flowers” meant “sakura.”
Hanami was first used as a term analogous to cherry blossom viewing in the Heian era novel Tale of Genji. Whilst a wisteria viewing party was also described, from this point on the terms “hanami” and “flower party” were only used to describe cherry blossom viewing.
Sakura originally was used to divine that year’s harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. People believed in kami (gods) inside the trees and made offerings. Afterwards, they partook of the offering with sake.
Emperor Saga of the Heian Period adopted this practice, and held flower-viewing parties with sake and feasts underneath the blossoming boughs of sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Poems would be written praising the delicate flowers, which were seen as a metaphor for life itself, luminous and beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral. This was said to be the origin of hanami in Japan.
The custom was originally limited to the elite of the Imperial Court, but soon spread to samurai society and, by the Edo period, to the common people as well. Tokugawa Yoshimune planted areas of cherry blossom trees to encourage this. Under the sakura trees, people had lunch and drank sake in cheerful feasts.
Today, the Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami, gathering in great numbers wherever the flowering trees are found. Thousands of people fill the parks to hold feasts under the flowering trees, and sometimes these parties go on until late at night. In more than half of Japan, the cherry blossoming period coincides with the beginning of the scholastic and fiscal years, and so welcoming parties are often opened with hanami. The Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami by taking part in the processional walks through the parks. This is a form of retreat for contemplating and renewing their spirits.
The teasing proverb dumplings rather than flowers (花より団子 hana yori dango) hints at the real priorities for most cherry blossom viewers, meaning that people are more interested in the food and drinks that accompany a hanami party rather than actually viewing the flowers themselves.
I woke up around 8 am to do some light cleaning and, more importantly, make my (technically Jun and mine’s) share of the hanami lunch. The previously night, Jun and I attempted to make 花見団子…but they ended up being a disaster and did not get past the wet-gummy phase. We settled for buying some on the way to the shrine instead. I ended up making some deviled eggs, rolled tuna and ham & cheese sandwiches, and a new beef recipe using umeboshi. My friend Yuka made inari sushi, tamagoyaki, fried chicken wings, and pumpkin salad. Kenji brought some snacks and drinks while Tommy, who had just gone back to American recently, brought lots of American sweets. I forgot how delicious Chips Ahoy! are.
We sat under the sakura eating and drinking for around two hours before we decided to wander around the spring festival and trying our luck with the shrine’s fortunes.