For the Japanese, it’s like a holiday season – the time of year spanning from late March through April when the cherry, plum, and peach blossoms flourish all over the country. That is when they practice ohanami, the beloved tradition of flower viewing.
What is Ohanami?
Ohanami, also called hanami less formally, comes from the kanji for flower, hana and the kanji for “looking” or “to see,” mi. It means exactly what it sounds like: looking at flowers. Ohanami does not take place on a specific day, but rather can be practiced at any time during the spring window. The tradition is one of simply observing and appreciating the delicacies of spring – particularly sakura, ume, and momo blossoms (cherry, plum, and peach respectively) – and reveling in that which is made even more beautiful, more precious by its evanescence. For the Japanese, the transience of cherry blossoms is a powerful metaphor for life.
Ohanami is a tradition enjoyed among friends, families, couples and coworkers alike. It can be a picnic in the park, eating sweets in the fields, visiting a famous castle or popular viewing site, or a couple casual beers on the hillside. If it happens under cherry blossoms it is probably ohanami.
Festivals abound. Celebrating at festivals and organized events often means live performances and music as well as innumerable stalls with games for children and a plethora of traditional Japanese foods and sweets to choose from. Often offered at ohanami festivals are sakura icecream and sakura mochi. Likewise, stores put out a whole string of cherry blossom products including sakura-themed candies, pastries, wine, and beer. Even the Starbucks in Japan feature a specialty sakura latte during the ohanami season.
A Brief History
Ohanami actually started as umemi, or plum blossom-viewing. That’s because back in the Nara period (710-784) – when flower-viewing is said to have first become a tradition – plum blossoms were gaining favor as symbols of culture and nobility. Ume trees had been introduced to Japan by envoys returning from China, who’d been enamored with the Chinese spectacle of blossom observation and sought to impress Japanese nobles. By the Heian period (794-1185) ohanami had become a regular practice among the higher classes and was observed by eating and drinking outside. We also know from Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji, a classic novel from the period, that by then cherry blossoms had overtaken plum blossoms in terms popularity and become the primary flower associated with the ohanami tradition.
By the Edo period (1603-1867), the practice of finding a spot in the blossoming fields to enjoy sake and special bento had become a pastime for the common people.
Many plum blossom-themed poems appear in the Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest poetry anthology, and the fleeting beauty of both ume and sakura are recurring themes in classic Japanese literature. Along with singing, reading such poetry has become common practice in today’s ohanami celebrations.