Hanami is the Japanese traditional custom of viewing the beauty of flowers. While in most places, cherry blossoms are popular, in some places it is the plum trees. Every spring, people gather around the streets of Japan to view and admire the fully bloomed cherry blossoms. In Japanese, these cherry blossoms are called sakura.
The flower sakura belongs to a Prunus tree, and there are over 400 types of them. These cherry blossoms are different from the trees that produce cherry fruit. Cherry blossoms are found throughout the world, but they are more common in Japan, China, North as well as South Korea, as well as Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and several areas across northern Europe. They reached the United States, too, when Japan had sent the trees as gifts in the past. The flowers bloom from March-end to early May.
Sakura: Derived from ‘Saku’, it means to bloom, or to smile/laugh.
Hanami: ‘Hana’ means flower and ‘mi’ mean to view. It means to view the flowers.
But where did this tradition start? As per records, hanami is several centuries old. It is said to have started during the Nara period (710–794) when it was ume (plum) blossoms that people admired. The plum is the first to blossom in the year. Then in the Heian period (794–1185), sakura (cherry blossoms) caught the eye of the ancient Japanese people. That’s how hanami became popularly associated with sakura. The blossoming of the cherry flowers was taken as a hint to begin the year’s harvest and announce the season to sow new seeds.
It was in the Heian period that Emperor Saga made hanami a leisure practice as well. The flower-viewing parties with feasts sitting beneath the pretty blossoming of sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto became common. This is cited as the beginning of this beautiful tradition of spending time with nature and calming our minds.
Of course, earlier, like anywhere in the world, this custom was new and limited to only royalties. But it spread to the Samurai society and when the Edo period started, it spread among the common people. A shogun named Tokugawa Yoshimune is said to have planted cherry blossom trees in several areas at that time to encourage hanami. Since then, Japanese people enjoy lunch, picnics, and parties under the lovely sakura trees. The tradition continues even today. In fact, it has become popular even in other parts of the world.
Do you know that even Japanese literature is highly influenced by the sakura? There are poems written praising the flowers. The philosophers and deep-thinkers even attached meaning to this flower-viewing tradition. They see sakura as symbolic of life itself. Life is beautiful, full of joy and yet there is an end to it.
Sakura is also edible! Cherry blossoms and their leaves can be eaten and are used as food ingredients in Japan for pickles, traditional Japanese confectionery, sweet buns, etc. However, its leaves are recommended to be eaten in limited portions.
Fun fact: These flowers are so beautiful when they bloom in spring that China, Japan, and South Korea have been fighting to own them! Each nation says that the sakura is native to them. But who knows! How can anyone own nature? Nobody is sure whether they are native to China, Japan, or South Korea, but everybody is certain that today the cherry blossoms have become a reason for people around the world to marvel at their beauty.