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What is Hanami? The history and origins of Hanami.

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Hanami (花見, flower viewing) is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers.

People in Japan like to go out with their friends, loved ones and family for Hanami when spring comes and the cherry blossoms start to bloom everywhere.

Hanami has a long history!

It all started with 'Ohanami', meaning viewing of plum blossoms.

Hanami is said to have been started by aristocrats in the Nara period (710-794). It was initially a way of admiring the plum blossoms that had been introduced from China.

In the Heian period (794-1185), the flowers used for Hanami changed from plum blossoms to cherry blossoms. According to the Nihon Kouki, the origins of cherry blossom viewing can be traced back to a banquet held by Emperor Saga called, Kaen no Sechi (花宴の節).

Hanami culture is spreading rapidly

Hanami used to be an event for the nobility, but in the Kamakura and Nara periods (1185-1333), it spread to the samurai (warrior) class.

The Yoshino Hanami is said to have been attended by as many as 5,000 people, including Tokugawa Ieyasu, Maeda Toshiie, Date Masamune, other famous warriors, tea masters and renga poets.

It is said that 700 cherry trees were planted in Daigoji Temple for Hanami and gorgeous tea ceremony and singing ceremony were held. It is said that "Sanshoku dango", which is popular with Hanami, was first served at this time.

It was not until the Edo period (1603-1868) that the culture of Hanami spread beyond the aristocracy. It was during this period that the most popular variety of cherry tree, the Someiyoshino, which can be seen all over Japan today, was created.

Hanami as a ritual to pray for a good harvest

In the days when aristocrats enjoyed Hanami to admire flowers, it has also been held among farmers. However, unlike the Hanami of the aristocracy, it has been held as a cerebration for the season of planting rice and ritual to pray for a good harvest.

It was believed that the god of the rice fields, who descended from the mountains in the spring, resided in the cherry blossoms. The crop of the year becomes better if cherry blossom is blooming longer.

When it was bloomed, farmers treated the god with sake so that he did not leave immediately and prayed him to stay and bloom as long as possible in old times.

Hanami tradition continues strong in Japan nowadays

As the cherry trees become alive with colour in each region of Japan, people all head to the parks with food and drinks in tow.

It has become an outdoor party for all ages, both during the daytime or nighttime.

During cherry blossom season, many parks and gardens light up their cherry trees from sundown. The illuminated flowers, which give off an ethereal glow, are called yozakura (夜桜, cherry blossoms at night).

Food and drinks for Hanami

Some of the most popular food and drinks for Hanami are:

  • Hanami bento – it often includes makizushi (rolled sushi), Inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed inside seasoned deep-fried tofu pockets), tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette),kamaboko (pink and white fish cakes) and karaage etc.

  • Onigri (rice ball) – during Hanami season, sakura onigiri made with salted cherry blossoms is popular.

  • Miso soup – hot miso soup is often prepared to keep warm as the weather may still be cool, especially in the evening.

  • Sakura mochi – it’s a rice cake filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a salted cherry blossom leaf.

  • Hanami dango (sweet dumplings made from glutenous rice flour) – three dumplings in green, white and pink are served together on a bamboo skewer. Pink represents flower buds, white represents bloomed cherry blossoms, and green represents leaves after all the petals have fallen.

  • Chuhai – it is a carbonated beverage made with shochu (a distilled spirit similar to vodka) and fruit juice.

  • Sake – it is the traditional Hanami drink. Drinking sake under the cherry blossom trees is also called hanamizake (cherry blossom sake).

Why not join Japanese people for a Hanami party when you visit Japan in cherry blossom season next time! It surely will be an unforgettable memory!

The Brisbane Japanese Language and Culture School

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