Few things carry the feeling of spring like the blooming of the sakura cherry tree in Japan. When the cherry blossoms open, people across Japan gather to enjoy their beauty. Hanami, which translates literally to “flower viewing” refers nearly exclusively to the custom of enjoying sakura (cherry) blossoms, though it has historically included viewing plum blossoms as well. Today, Hanami celebrations in Japan can be as elaborate as an outdoor picnic underneath the blooming sakura trees complete with barbecuing, or as simple as a stroll through the park to see the flowers. Hanami festivities can take place during daylight hours or at night, with some places hanging special lanterns on the trees to facilitate night viewing.
Hanami traditions are thought to have begun during the Nara period (710-794 CE) when the practice of viewing plum blossoms in the spring was brought to Japan from China. By the Heian period (794-1185) the focus of spring flower viewing had shifted from plum blossoms to the cherry blossom as it is today. Likewise, the word hanami itself became exclusively attached to the practice of sakura viewing around the same time. The original hanami parties were feasts thrown by the emperor for the imperial court. Eventually, the practice was adopted by samurai and by the Edo period (1603-1868) parties for hanami had spread to the common people.
Hanami has become an important piece of Japanese culture to the point where sakura tree blooming is included in the spring weather forecasts of Japan. Sakura trees bloom for a relatively short time, with flowers usually only lasting for about 2 weeks before they completely fall off the tree. As such, maps including the “cherry blossom front” appear in the beginning of March when the trees on the main islands of Japan begin to bloom.
The ubiquitous popularity of hanami in Japan has led to the custom being shared by the Japanese government with other nations. Japan has gifted sakura cherry trees to many countries, including the United States, on numerous occasions. Japan’s first gift of cherry trees to the United States happened in 1912, when 3000 trees were planted in Washington D.C. Since then, gifts of cherry trees have been planted in Macon, Georgia, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in New York City, and in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, with each place hosting it’s own version of Hanami festival. This year, the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia will be hosting the annual Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival in Fairmount Park on April 4th and 5th. This year’s festival is expanded to two days where it was previously only one, giving festival goers an extra day to enjoy the blossoms, vendor booths, and performances. Be sure to stop by Fairmount Park this spring for your very own Hanami experience!