While 見 (mi ) means to look/see, and 花 (hana ) means flowers, hanami is widely understood to refer specifically to looking at sakura, cherry blossoms, of which there are several hundred varieties all around Japan.
Some rare varieties of the cherry tree bloom in colors ranging from green and yellow to white, but the majority in Japan are bright pink and seemingly spring from nowhere to blanket the country during hanami season starting at the end of March.
The much-anticipated blooming of sakura happens each spring for roughly two weeks in any given place, with regional climates affecting the timing. In fact, it’s so ingrained in the national consciousness that news outlets forecast and track the blooming beginning in Okinawa in late January and sweeping the archipelago northward to Hokkaido by late April or early May.
Hanami Dates Back to the Heian Period
References to hanami date back to the Nara period (710–794), and span a wealth of important literature, such as the “Tale of Genji,” and art including paintings and woodblock prints. In those times, hanami was a stately affair in which participants enjoyed seasonal food and drink at picnics under sakura trees. They also composed delicate poetry and spent time in contemplation of the ephemeral beauty that, like so many things in life, is fleeting.
These days, in busy metropolitan areas, the early scouting and marking-off of picnic space with tarpaulin is a crucial first step, especially during the first weekend of full bloom. Parties form around all manner of social ties, with families, work colleagues, couples, and haphazard collections of friends.
As always, food and drink are of supreme importance and seem to eclipse the flowers themselves, which form more of a backdrop for the revelry. Sake is a perennial favorite, but any alcohol will do (in significant quantities no less), and most gatherings have a potluck type of etiquette, with both food and drink being shared.
Recently a faux news comedy website featured a map of the nation marked with dates for major cities, called “Japan Releases Dates for Getting Wasted in a Park.” Satirizing the actual forecasts issued by the state weather agency, it nonetheless points to the truth of modern hanami; that the Japanese flood their parks and get drunk until the last fragile petal falls.
Hanami can be truly sublime. Visitors are often amazed at how peaceful such large drunken gatherings can be, and how diligently people clean up the area by themselves. But don’t forget, amid the revelry, to take a moment and consider the delicate lesson of the blossom, this too shall pass.