Whilst living in Japan, I sometimes felt that the customs and traditions were overwhelming and stifling. Though in many ways I had a fantastic time, it took me a while to be able to look back on the experience with fondness.
Despite these mixed feelings, the rich tapestry and culture of Japan allows for many unique and interesting festivals that I miss very much. The flower festival of Hanami is one of these and I couldn’t let Spring roll around without mentioning it.
Sakura (cherry blossoms) blooming is a huge deal in Japan. The sighting of a possible bud is reported avidly in the news and Sakura-Watch in the media starts in early March. The website Sakura in High Park is dedicated to every bud and blossom with predications and photo galleries of sightings.
When the Sakura finally appears, families and friends celebrate with picnics and drinking parties under the trees, and lanterns are strung up over the cities and towns. Hanami literally translates as ‘flower viewing’ and is widely celebrated around the country (it has even spread internationally with events in New Zealand and D.C in the US). By the time the festival begins, the weather has normally turned a little warmer and it really feels like Spring has really begun. Websites and magazines discuss the best viewing spots with many areas becoming particularly crowded. The Japan Guide reports that the typical practice in major hot spots is to spread your picnic blanket down early in the morning and either mark it with your group’s name and party’s starting time or ‘to have somebody positioned there during the whole day until the rest of the group arrives after work.’ (Hanami – How To from the Japan Guide) I can’t say my little city of Tottori had this but it really doesn’t surprise me to hear.
I have great memories from Hanami, experiencing it twice. The first time was by happy accident in 2008. I didn’t know anything about Hanami at the time and just enjoyed the pretty, spring trees and the pink confetti that occasionally rained down on me.
The second time was when I was actually living in Tottori, Japan and my friends eagerly explained the celebration, making grand plans. Due to the unpredictable nature of the weather and the relatively short period of bloom (it can be so depressing if a strong gust of wind or storm strips the trees bare overnight – erm, bye Hanami!), I had work colleagues trying to plan their vacations around it. Over the two week or so period of Hanami a few years ago, teachers would often arrive into school the next morning, bleary-eyed from the excitement the night before. Young couples could be found strolling under the lanterns and families played after school. The whole experience was utterly enchanting and was very romantic. My friends and I went after school with hibachis, playing frisbee and drinking Konbini alcohol. It was socially acceptable to come into work hungover, if not encouraged.
Every instagram photo or facebook update regarding this year’s Hanami really pulls on my heart strings and I get super natsukashii (nostalgic) about it all. If you ever get the choice of when to travel to Japan, try and make it over Spring. It will be hard to guess Hanami, but if you manage to time it well, it’s so worth it!