Japan’s Cherry Blossom Festival: A guide to Hanami

 In Culture

Cherry blossoms are one of the most iconic symbols of Japan. Easily distinguished by their stunning pink flowers, cherry blossoms are revered not only for their beauty but also for what they represent – the beautiful, precious and fleeting nature of life. The blooming and falling of the blossoms is celebrated each year at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan; known as Hanami.

While the origins of the flower are a bit of a mystery (and also a point of much debate amongst the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans), the origins of the “flower viewing”, or hanami festival, is a lot easier to track. When Japan was establishing its own customs and civilization during the Nara period (710 – 794), they looked to China for inspiration. During this time, the Japanese upper class would read Chinese poems and celebrate the beauty of plum blossoms (ume), frequently sitting amongst them to pursue their creative endeavours; be it calligraphy, painting, or writing. By the Heian period (794 – 1185), hanami had become a common practice amongst the upper and lower classes, and the word was now being used exclusively for the practice of viewing cherry blossoms rather than flowers in general. During the viewing, people would gather, drink sake, eat and write poems under the falling petals.


How it works

Today, the hanami festival is still very much the same (minus the poetry of course!) Early in the morning – or in extreme cases, the night before – people will begin camping out to reserve the best spots for their party to view the cherry blossoms in local parks, temples and gardens. As the Japanese spring also marks the beginning of the school and fiscal year, it is usually the lowest ranking member of the group that will be given this task (poor thing…). At about 12pm, the rest of the party arrives and the festivities kick off with food and sake, developing into what is essentially a beautiful, boozy picnic under the cherry blossoms with a group of friends. Sounds amazing, right?

After the sun sets, the festival becomes yozakura, meaning “cherry trees at night”. Lanterns are lit, instruments come out, and karaoke begins. For the more tenacious partygoer, yozakura can last until the early hours of the morning, sometimes becoming a 24+hour event (I’m looking at you, uni students)!


How to time your visit

Cherry blossom season takes place in the Japanese springtime (March, April, May), with trees beginning to bloom in the southwest corner of the country in early March, progressing to the northeast corner by early May. The blossoms are highly anticipated by locals and tourists alike, and meteorologists work tirelessly from January to April in order to predict when the trees will begin to flower, when they will reach full bloom, and when they will begin to fall. Even though these predictions are reviewed on a daily basis, the actual day of full bloom will vary depending on weather conditions. When visiting, it’s best to keep an eye on the forecast and have a backup plan just in case the flowers bloom earlier than expected. You can track when and where the flowers will bloom here.


Cherry, plum or peach?

Cherry blossoms (sakura) are not the only flowers of its kind in Japan; there are also plum blossoms (ume) and peach blossoms (momo). The three trees are part of the Prunus family, and are quite difficult to tell aparteven for the locals. Usually, the most obvious giveaway is the time of year. While ume bloom from late January to late May, momo bloom from mid-March, and sakura bloom from late March to early May.


Sakura Characteristics:

  • Oval shaped petals with a cut/split at the top and an umbrella-like shape
  • Very faint smell
  • Oval buds with multiple flowers per bud
  • Green or copper folded leaves


Ume Characteristics:

  • Oval shaped petals, with a circular shape
  • Strong floral smell
  • Dark coloured, smooth bark
  • Round buds with one flower per bud
  • Purple or green rolled leaves


Momo Characteristics:

  • Tear shaped petals
  • Soft smell
  • Oval buds with one flower per bud – usually grow in groups of two, making a “V” shape on the branch
  • Green pointed leaves


Embrace the obsession

Japan tends to go a little sakura-crazy in the months preceding hanami. The fanfare surrounding the festival can be seen everywhere you look, with many places offering cherry blossom themed foods, drinks, souvenirs, guides, and more – including cherry blossom themed bento boxes to eat on the day. Even companies like McDonalds, Starbucks and Nestle get involved!

I was lucky enough to find an absolutely beautiful sakura tea from one of the temples I visited in Kyoto. Not only was it unique and delicious – it also had a beautiful soft pink hue and gold leaf specs throughout. Nothing says tranquil luxury quite like drinking gold leaf sakura tea from Japan!

When seeing cherry blossoms in full bloom, it’s easy to see why so many people are so in love with them. Have you been able to attend the hanami festival before? Are you booking your next trip in spring just to be able to see them? Make sure to let me know in the comments below!


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