Spring is the perfect time to visit Japan, whether for a holiday or to study Japanese. Clouds of pink, frothy blossom fill the hillsides and city parks across the country, and, for a few brief weeks,hanami (‘cherry-blossom viewing’) becomes a national obsession. Gazing at the perfect blooms of the cherry tree has been a Japanese tradition for more than a thousand years. Although once the preserve of the emperor and his court, hanami is now a hugely popular festival beloved by all. People gather in parks with friends and families to enjoy a picnic and celebrate the fleeting perfection of the blossom – which lasts just a few days. The most famous viewing spots, particularly in the cities, get jam-packed quickly, so perfect planning is essential. The annual cherry blossom festival is something you won’t want to miss, so check out our top tips on how to hanami in style!
Where To Hanami
The cherry blossom (sakura) peaks for just a couple of weeks, so make sure you know when it will be blooming in your area. The Japanese tourist board’s website posts the dates (in English) on which you can see the sakura throughout the country. As a general guide, the blooms appear first in the sub-tropical island of Okinawa in the south in mid-January; in Osaka and Kyoto in late March; and in Sapporo in the northern island of Hokkaido in early May.
If you’re planning to hit one of the famous hanami hot spots – like Yoyogi or Shinjuku Gyoen parks in Tokyo or the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto – be prepared to get there early. Very early! The most dedicated hanami aficionados will arrive as early as 6am to lay claim to the best picnic spots by laying out their blankets!
Hanami Picnic Etiquette
When deciding where to hanami, find out first whether the park you’ve chosen allows parties. Places are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis, so get there as early as you can to stake your claim to spots with the best views. Be sure to bring bin bags with you, as you will be expected to leave your picnic area spotless. (For more top tips on Japanese customs, why not check out our handy list of dos and don’ts in Japan.)
Essential Hanami Kit
Key items to ensure your hanami is a success include picnic blankets – ideally with a waterproof lining, as the evenings can get damp and chilly. Committed hanami fans might even consider a cushion or two for comfort. It’s also a good idea to bring something warm to wear and perhaps even a rain coat or umbrella if the weather forecast isn’t good. Make sure you have plenty to eat and drink, including lots of the special hanami foods that are prepared in celebration of this beautiful festival. You could also enjoy some of the traditional delicacies served up at the food stalls that can be found at most of the major cherry blossom-viewing sites. Tissues and wet wipes are also useful, as you will almost certainly find yourself joining the queues for the portaloos. Don’t forget the bin bags, so that you can bag up all the rubbish before you leave.
Traditional Hanami Foods
You’ll see special hanami foods everywhere you go during cherry blossom season. The department stores and supermarkets offer a range of hanami bento – classic Japanese picnic boxes filled with delicious treats in pale pinks and greens in honour of the delicate blossom and the coming of spring. These might include sushi with prawns or salmon and perhaps some sakuramochi, a pink rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled cherry blossom leaf. Other seasonal specialities include sakura onigiri, a variation of the ubiquitous onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed), which are prepared with salted cherry blossoms. Are you ready to hanami with style? Whether you’re heading for the holiday of a lifetime or are studying Japanese abroad, we hope that you’ve been inspired to make the most of one of Japan’s most unforgettable festivals!