Sakura Symbolism in Japan
Spring has once again arrived and it’s that of year again in Japan where people like to have cherry blossom parties in the local parks. In Japan, this custom is called Hanami (花見) which literally means “Cherry blossom viewing”. Apparently, this tradition has a very long history. The practice of Hanami is many centuries old since it was originally a party to appreciate nature.
Cherry blossoms are called Sakura (桜) in Japanese and were originally being used to bless each year’s harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. People believed that kami (神) which means deities resided inside the trees and made offerings for that very reason. Depending on which area of Japan, the cherry blossoms come at the same time as the beginning of the school year and work after their holidays, so welcoming parties are often held at the same time with Hanami. Usually, people go to the parks to reserve the best places to celebrate Hanami with friends, family, and co-workers hours or even a few days beforehand.
Currently, Japanese people continue the tradition of Hanami. Through holding feasts under the blossoming trees, sometimes these parties can go on late into the night. Hanami at night is called Yozakura (夜桜)and the viewing spots are still crowded with people as people would like to enjoy the blossoms in a more romantic atmosphere created by the beautiful pink blossoms, so there are often more couples at night or “soon to be” couples. In cities like Tokyo, it is also common to have celebrations under the Sakura at night. In many places such as Meguro Park, temporary paper lanterns are hung to have Yozakura.
Every year in January, there is an annual forecast for the best time to go see the cherry blossoms which used to be previously announced by the Japan Meteorological Agency and now by private agencies. This Cherry blossom forecast is called Sakura Zensen (桜前線) Which means the cherry blossom front. This forecast is watched attentively by those who plan to celebrate Hanami because these blossoms last only for a very little time, usually no more than two weeks.
In most large cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Hanami normally takes place around the end of March and the beginning of April. The local media will follow the cherry blossom forecast closely as it slowly moves from the South to North of Japan.
Sakura has a special symbolism for Japan as it’s a very special flower for the nation, it signifies a time of renewal and the transient nature of life. Their life is very short, just like our own human lifespan. After their beauty peaks around two weeks, the petals will start to fall and create a very beautiful yet sad atmosphere, but all good things must come to an end one day, that’s why one should appreciate the good things in life and not take things for granted. There is a saying in Japanese called “mono no aware” ( 物の哀れ) Which means the beautiful transience of things.
How to prepare for Hanami in Japan.
Besides bringing the obvious food and beverages for a Hanami picnic party in the middle of a park, you need a few things to prepare the area where the party will take place. You will also need to check the weather on the day as well in case it rains on your Hanami picnic party.
You will need a picnic mat that can be easily purchased from Japan discount stores like Daiso or Don Quijote for as little as 100 yen, its best to secure these as soon as possible as these fly off the shelves closer towards the celebrations. Also for obvious reasons since nobody wants to be the one who wants to be the one to wash all the dishes at the end of it all, disposable utensils.
Now with the necessities out the way, you’re wondering what sort of food people eat or bring along for Hanami?
Hanami themed lunchboxes of course! Also known as Hanami Bento (花見弁当) You can either make your own or buy them at the big department stores. These themed lunch boxes are more decorative and more extravagant compared to your typical convenience store bento.
A typical Hanami bento has:
- Makizushi (巻き寿司) – Sushi rolls
- Inarizushi (稲荷寿司) – Sushi wrapped in tofu skin
- Tamago (卵) – Japanese style sweet egg omelette
- Kamaboko (蒲鉾) – Pink and white fish cake
- Karaage (から揚げ) – Japanese deep-fried boneless chicken
- Ebi (えび) – deep fried breaded prawn
- Takoyaki (たこ焼き) – Octopus balls with various filling
- Onigiri (おにぎ) – Japanese rice balls with various filling
- Tsukemono (漬物)or salads – Pickles or salad
Hanami Dango (団子) and Mochi (餅)
- Sakura Mochi: Sticky rice cake filled with red bean and wrapped in a salted cherry blossom leaf.
- Hanami Dango: Sweet dumplings made from rice flour and typically come served on a skewer in three colours – pink, white and green.
Annual Limited-Edition Sakura Products
Japanese consumer goods companies also jump on the Hanami bandwagon to paint the nation pink with their goods and put out their limited-edition Sakura related products just for the Hanami season out for Hanami enthusiasts to snatch up. Once these products are sold out then they’re gone for good and come back the year after with a different design. These Sakura related products tend to be very popular in Japan:
Limited edition Starbucks Sakura products
Asahi Sakura Beer Theme Change
When viewing Sakura, the first questions that may pop into your mind is; “Are Sakura edible?” Yes and no, Sakura is considered edible if they’re used to flavour food, used as a light pink food colouring or as a garnish but they shouldn’t be eaten in large quantities. They contain a chemical called coumarin, a natural substance found in plants that’s toxic in large enough doses which will damage your liver and kidneys.
The benefits of using Sakura in health and beauty products are highly beneficial to the body. Sakura is rich in antioxidants, is an anti-inflammatory and are good for the skin as it contains essential acids that can help repair damage from natural cells which leads to a more younger rejuvenated skin.
How Hanami is viewed outside of Japan
Hanami also takes place outside of Japan wherever there are cherry blossom trees such as Taiwan, Korea, Philippines, Finland and China but on a much smaller scale. But out of all countries, Hanami has become very popular in the USA.
Japan gave 3,000 Sakura trees as a gift to the United States to celebrate the friendship of the nations in 1912. These trees were planted in Washington and a further 3,800 trees were donated in 1965. Every year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival takes place during the spring at Washington. But other states also celebrate Hanami with their own Festival. In Macon, Georgia is known as the Cherry Blossom Capital of the World because 300,000 Sakura trees grow there and also the International Cherry Blossom Festival takes place there. Brooklyn, New York has the Annual Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival which takes place in May, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This festivity has been celebrated since 1981 and is one of the Garden’s most famous attractions. The largest collection of Sakura in the United States is in Newark, New Jersey’s Branch Brook Park, whose over 5,000 cherry trees of 18 varieties attract 10,000 visitors a day during its annual Cherry Blossom Festival.