Hanami (cherry blossom viewing and appreciation events) is a THING here in Japan. Not like in DC where people go and walk around and take photos of the blossoms and then leave. The Japanese go hard on Hanami parties.
A lot of my (male) students would tell you that it’s because they like to have an excuse to drink during the day. And really, who doesn’t? But I do think it might be more than that: getting to hang out in a nice park under cherry trees, having a picnic and a general nice time with your friends is really nice. And maybe rare in Japan, where the average person works about 60 hours per week. It’s just expected that work might let out early to have one of these, or people might take the day off of work, one day. This is basically the ONLY time of year that people might do this.
All you need to have a hanami party is a blanket (or the green or blue tarp that EVERYONE seems to have), some friends, some beer and some snacks. Some people might go all out and bring a small grill or food they made at home. Most people (us included) just stop at the grocery or convenience store on the way to the party and pick a few things up.
It’s such a serious event that there is actually a cherry blossom forecast each year (pictured left), so you can plan when to have your party while the trees are in full bloom, since they generally only last a week, or there is rain and that just fucks everything up.
A lot of people will plan around this calendar for the local parties, but if you want to go somewhere serious like Kyoto or other popular viewing places, you kind of just have to pick a date on the calendar, make your best bet, and book WAY early. Reservations for hotels and tours in the popular locations fill up months in advance, and the prices are NOT cheap.
So as I said, we ended up getting to do hanami multiple times this year, which is great since we were in Australia last year and totally missed all of it.
While we were in Kyushu, our friend Kikue took us to the Takeda castle ruins on our way back to life and reality after we’d spent 2 nights and 3 days on a mountain, at an onsen, away from everything. We got there just as the trees were starting to bloom.
Contrary to what the photo at the link above will show you, the city decided some time ago to plant the ruins with tons of cherry trees, making it an extremely popular place to go during cherry blossom season. We were there on a bit of a grey and misty day, which I think only added to the lovely setting of a ruined castle on a hilltop. Thankfully, due to the weather (and the fact that it was a weekday), there weren’t too many people there.
We got to try some food (and chili sauce) from a famous local chef who had a small stand at the top of the hill, and walk at a leisurely pace around the ruins, which we basically had to ourselves. The view from the top was like looking at an old Japanese scroll, with the mountains and hills fading off into the background.
Our second hanami experience was at Asukayama-koen in Oji, with friends. This was also on a weekday, but that didn’t stop the place from being crowded by old people and stay-at-home moms.
The park (pictured left, and above) was lovely and we had a nice spot on the hill where we could eat our snacks, drink our beers (chu-hi in my case) and watch the cherry blossom leaves fall when the wind blew. It was a truly unique experience, and not one I’ve had anywhere else. It also felt ‘very Japanese’, which was nice, since the only time I ever really feel that way is when I’m squashed in with a mob on the train.
Again, the day was a bit grey and sad, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying it and it certainly didn’t stop me from using my mamiya to take loads of photos.
As I’ve said before, I work in Otemachi, basically across the street from the Imperial Palace. This place is often considered THE PLACE to go to view the blossoms, as they have many lining all sides of the palace, and a lot inside the gates as well. There’s a special spot on the west side that is great for photos, but I generally don’t get over that far, since I’m on the east side and it’s 5k around.
So I took some time off one day when some lessons didn’t book to go outside and have a walk around. The weather was great, and even though it had rained the night before, most of the trees had still retained a good portion of their leaves. It was good timing for me!
I walked around the park, enjoying what was probably the last good day for looking at the trees. It’s interesting that the Japanese get so excited about their blooming. I understand that it’s a signal that the winter is over, and spring is on the way. But I think another big part of it, which the Japanese seem to do very well, is enjoying the moment, or how fleeting it is. Cherry blossom season lasts for about 2 weeks each year, with some trees blooming early and some later, depending on their location and the amount of sunlight they get. So it’s a very small amount of time over the course of a year.
It’s good to remember to enjoy these things that don’t last, and to remember that impermanence is a basic tendency of most things. As Robert Frost said, nothing gold can stay.
I hope I can get around to the west side of the palace, and maybe see a tree illuminated at night. Next year.