Hanami is the act of viewing the Cherry Blossoms (Sakura) and is a common cultural event in Japan. The word Hanami is a combination of the Kanji words for “to see/watch” and the word for flower. The appreciation of nature is an important part of Japanese culture. Shinto, the indigenous religion of the Japanese people, emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with the natural world and much of Japanese culture is inspired by not just nature but trees specifically. For many years poets wrote about the beauty of the Plum and Cherry Blossoms, and eventually they became a symbol for the nature of life.
While now Hanami is specific to Sakura, the first recorded act of watching flowers was with the Plum Blossoms. This older tradition is called Ume. Ume is still common in Japan but is typically more popular amongst the elder citizens. Participating in Ume, the gatherings tend to be smaller and calmer than the Sakura parties thrown by the younger citizens in Japan.
Hanami first became associated with the Sakura during the Nara Period (710-794). Aristocrats and courtiers read many Chinese poems about the beauty of the Cherry Blossoms. During the Heian Period (794-1185) the term Hanami became synonymous with Cherry Blossom viewing. The first instance of Hanami being directly used to describe Sakura was during the Heian Era Novel “The Tale of Genji”.
By the Edo Period, Hanami was already popular in the upper classes but in the 1600s the Tokugawa Shogunate planted Cherry Blossoms in public spaces. This allowed farmers, commoners, and merchants to Hanami as well. Following the abolition of the warrior class Japan made major efforts to Westernize itself. It was during this time that the Japanese began having picnics and drinking Sake under the Sakura trees.
Nowadays, picnics and Sake are still very popular. However, due to the urbanization of Japan and the abundance of corner stores it is shockingly easy to keep the party going and oftentimes Hanami turns into a party amongst Japan’s youth. When Hanami continues into or begins at night it is called: Yozakura. Hanami is such an important part of Japanese culture that today there are even “Cherry Blossom Forecasts” (Sakura Zensen) that people will follow to find out when the flowers will blossom in their area. This allows people to plan their Hanami accordingly, and make the most of their two week bloom. Trees typically bloom from the end of March to early May, unless on the island of Okinawa where you can see blossoms as early as February.