Perharps the oldest and best example of Japanese beauty is the tradition of hanami. Hanami, or 花見, which tranlates to “flower viewing” is the popular tradition of observing the Japanese cherry blossoms when they are in full bloom. These flowers are called sakura.
Hana means “flower” and mi is to see. Hanami is perhaps the strongest part of Japanese culture today. Cultural expert Kanako mentions that hanami became popular in the Heian Period (794 – 1192 AD). However, like many things in Japan, this custom began with the elite some time earlier and trickled down to the common people.
After interviewing a number of Japanese, they seem to all agree that there isn’t a Japanese person who doesn’t enjoy seeing the sakura. Sakura are only in bloom for two weeks in March and April before the blossoms have left the tree completely.
“There are more than 600 kinds of sakura in Japan,” Nao says. “It is the most popular and familiar flower to us.”
To Japanese, these blossoms are a symbol of spring, and new beginnings. “The Japanese financial year and the academic year start in April” Kanako points out. Students also graduate during this time, and start new jobs. Hanami symbolizes new beginnings for many people.
Part of the tradition of hanami is to have picnics under the sakura with friends or family, enjoying food and sometimes sake ( rice wine) together. “I have a Shidarezakura tree which is a kind of sakura tree in my backyard in Japan, and my family hosts hanami” mentions Nao. “We usually invite our friends, have a barbeque, and drink under the tree.”
Several Japanese noted that they like the color of sakura blossoms, a light pink, but Kaori admits “I dislike their color when they are dying.” However, Shohei feels a little differently. “I like falling sakura,” he says, a sentiment that many Japanese still share.
As the blossoms are falling, sakura are an extremely popular and great example of aware. The blossoms, dead and falling, are useless, but there is a beauty in this. “Sometimes we say the sakura are dancing” says Shohei. “The dance is not a dance that needs fast movement, as young people move.”
The sakura represent a cycle of life every year. As they blossom they represent new beginnings and youth, and as they fall and die, they exemplify wabi-sabi, in this case a beauty of age, imperfection, and a feeling of sadness of the blossoms’ short life.
“I personally like when sakura is in full bloom and the petals stay on the tree. I can feel the strength of the tree and that encourages me. Also when the petals are falling from the tree we think about life, love, Ichigoichie (treasure every encounter, for it will never recur ) and happiness.
Spring is the season we usually consider to be the start of a new era, and we experience new encounters and say farewell to old friends after they graduate from school. Sakura is a subject that fills us with many emotions,” Nao thoughtfully notes.
“Walking on the street as the blossoms fall, and seeing the tree in full bloom is amazing. I like see the petals floating in the river, too,” Ayako states. Shoko feels that hanami is best enjoyed with a cloudy sky. “A gray sky makes the pink of the blossoms more mild.”
“Hanami has existed for over 1,200 years. Even though the clothes, custom, culture, food, and a lot of things have changed, the heart of enjoying sakura has not changed. Sakura are a bridge between the past and now, I think,” Kanako ponders.
Nao also mentions that sakura have inspired many songs on the subject.
The following list of songs are a few of the most popular of these songs:
There is little doubt that regardless of what direction Japan moves in, traditions of hanami will remain firmly rooted in Japanese culture, as solid evidence of Japan’s identity.
Please share any thoughts or questions about sakura or hanami.