Spring is coming
There is a murmur in the air amongst the Japanese people, a supressed anticipation for the coming weeks. Fully prepared and awaiting the signs; everyone is keeping an ear to the wind for a single word. The only possible explanation is the impending arrival of … Hanami.
Yes, in Japan the Hanami season is nearly upon the country once again and is one of the most long-awaited times of the year. Japanese tourists flock to southern Japan to witness the first blooming of the Sakura, whilst others await to hear news of the Cherry Blossom Front moving ever closer to their position.
The cherry Blossoms are one of Japan’s National flowers (the other being the Chrysanthemum) , and its image is perhaps one of the countries’ most associated symbols — at least to a western audience. It’s certainly a season that captures the essence of spring the world over.
Introduction to Hanami
Hanami is a term that means to look at flowers, or more naturally flower viewing. However, it has come to specifically mean the viewing of the Sakura or Cherry Blossom trees above everything else. Hanami has become more than just its literal translation though and has come to include a festival atmosphere; where gatherings and picnics around parks and gardens can run from day until night, and seasonal activities and foods spring up across the country.
The start of the blossoming season can vary depending on the temperature and climate; a general rule being that the colder the weather the later it starts. With this is mind, in Japan, it’s possible to track the progress of the Cherry Blossoms and the beginning of Hanami, through what is known as the Cherry Blossom Front.
Starting from the southern islands and regions of Japan, blossoming can begin around mid-March; progressing further north, all the way to Hokkaido can see the process start from as late as the first week of May. Due to Japan’s geography, its possible then to do what some say is a ‘Cherry Blossom Tour’. You start from the south and work your way up to the north seeing new Sakura bloom as the ones behind you go back to hibernation. This essential creates a month and a half – two-month window of Hanami.
The Sakura or Cherry Blossom trees themselves only bloom for an incredibly short period of time. A one-two week period is the usual timeframe from beginning to end before returning to a dormant state for the next 50 weeks. It is this momentary existence that adds to their significance, beauty, and symbolic nature as visitors flock to catch a glimpse before the moment passes; the process reflects the fleetingness of life together with its possibility and beauty while it exists.
The enjoyment of plants and flowers have long been a part of Japanese life; yet Cherry Blossoms are often overshadowed by an imported rival — the Plum Blossom. Originating from China, the Prunus Mume (the technical name) was imported during the Nara Period of Japan between 710 and 794 (like many things during this time), and could be considered the first instance of the admiration of a ‘blossoming’.
It wasn’t until the Heian Period that Sakura started to become more popular and the term Hanami became synonymous with Cherry Blossom viewing. This could be due to political instability in China at the time, resulting in the suspension of envoys and diplomatic missions.
It was a while however before the custom managed to filter down to the common people. At first it was the Emperor and the imperial court that pursued the activity of sitting under the yearly blossoms; whilst hosting, what could be classified as, a ‘garden party’. As this form of entertainment progressed, more areas would be transformed into Sakura filled gardens and parks; eventually, more spots became accessible to the lower rungs of the social ladder. This was ultimately achieved around the beginning of the Edo Period (1603).
Nevertheless, Hanami has now become a custom that has been enjoyed for over 1000 years.
Hanami blossoms at home
Hanami is a season is primarily a celebration in Japan and other Asian countries; however, a handful of other Western countries have started to include the festivities in their yearly calendar. The US, Canada, Germany and Denmark are some good examples that see Hanami as a big occasion. Currently the UK is not a country that sees much Hanami related activity.
Sakura on the other hand is not just restricted to Japan; there are in fact hundreds of different variations of the ornamental cherry blossom tree. You can find native trees across the northern hemisphere, though Japan has often generously donated its Cherry Blossom trees to various countries around the world as well.
Where to see Sakura
With that in mind there are many Cherry Blossom spots already in the UK that you can admire during the blooming season; here it is normally late March through until mid/late April. There are thousands of Cherry Blossom trees across all parts of the country; here are some spots that could be noteworthy:
The Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire
A site that holds the title of being the UK’s National Collection of Flowering Cherries, of which 70% of all known cultivars are located here.
Greenwich Park in London
This is a famous spot for Cherry Blossoms in London. During Spring it is often crowded with visitors trying to get a picturesque photo of the path flanked both sides by Sakura trees — an image you may have seen before.
Brogdale collections in Kent
Brogdale collections is one of the only, if not the only location in the UK to hold a Hanami celebration. Holding a whole host of Japanese related events as well as the chance to see over 350 flowering varieties.
The Stray at Harrogate Yorkshire
This location is another ideal spot for that perfect Cherry Blossom photo. Avenues lined with Sakura tree’s in a similar fashion to parks in London that arch above.
These are on top of the locations mentioned in my Deciphering Japanese Gardens post. Wales has also been in receipt of 1000 Sakura trees gifted by Japan, intended to be spread across the country.
Finally, it has been recent news that there is going to be an increasing attempt to plant more Cherry Blossom trees of many varieties across many towns and cities across the UK in an effect to create an equivalent of Hanami at home.
Hanami in Japan is a fascinating time of the year. The temporariness of the blossoms makes them worth watching out for and an integral part of the year. Although, blossoming of Sakura is at the heart of the season, there is a lot more to enjoy alongside them.
Back at home there is not be much ‘official’ Hanami activity; yet there are still plenty of places and ways of enjoying Cherry Blossoms. I would encourage anyone to get out and enjoy their fleeting existence with friends and family and maybe even contemplate the significance. That would be the real Hanami.