I Lived in Japan During Hanami: What the Cherry Blossom Viewing Experience Is Really Like

Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

Japan’s adoration of the delicate sakura tree spans centuries -- frequently popping up in artwork and poems, and as a feature in several of the country’s long-standing rituals and traditions. 

This shouldn't come as a surprise. 

After all, the cherry blossom is Nippon’s national flower, and during spring, its brief spring blossoms are celebrated through flower viewing, known as hanami, where groups gather on blankets, under the delicate, flowering bows, armed with full hearts, full stomachs, and even fuller glasses. 

Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

Historically, it’s thought that the sakura blossom’s ephemeral nature, lasting only around two short-but-sweet weeks, is precisely why it is revered as such a precious cultural commodity; much like life (yes, we're getting all theological), the blossom’s presence is fleeting. Looking back to my first and only hanami in Japan, which took place just weeks after the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake, this natural allegory becomes even more heartbreaking and poignant, though equally uplifting. 

Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

During a time of so much darkness, tragedy, and loss, the slow appearance of these delicate white and pink blossoms had a palpable effect on everyone’s constitution. The emerging blossoms seemed to give people a reason to be excited about life again and permission to smile or even laugh again. It reminded everyone that, despite the recent events, life goes on and it can still be beautiful. I learned quickly that close to nothing will stop the Japanese from celebrating hanami

Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

Cherry blossom season usually begins somewhere between late March and early April, notably first in the warmer areas, like southern Japan and the island of Okinawa. Once the first bud appears, it is game on -- everyone tracks the blossoms. At the school where I was teaching, once the blooms began, students and teachers shared tips on which parks had trees in mankai, or full bloom, and soon, long days and early mornings became afterthoughts to meeting up with friends and family to roll out the blankets under a canopy of blossoms. Typically, and for thousands of years, hanami is celebrated with large groups sitting under the blooms, joyfully noshing on snacks and cracking open the beer, wine, and cans of soju. (One great thing about Japan is there’s an open container law, so you can just pick your poison up from the local convenience store and pop it open right in the park!) 

Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

While folks anxiously track the blossoms, stores explode with sakura-themed everything. Several brands, like Sapporo, unleash special packaging adorned with cherry blossoms, beauty counters are covered in cherry blossom-scented lotions, and shelves and displays are topped with cherry blossom-infused waters and wines. I even managed to get my hands on a tempura-battered blossom and a sakura-flavored Kit-Kat bar. 

Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

During our brief blossom season, I was a wreck and eased myself into the festivities, at first forgoing the group picnics, preferring to stroll through the parks on my teaching breaks. I would walk along the paths, under branch after branch, each thick with soft white, pink, and magenta blooms. The wind would blow and a handful of the paper-thin flowers would flutter past my face as they fell to the ground. The fluffy, gorgeous blossoms were everywhere -- on the trees, in the air, and on the ground. It felt surreal, like I was in a candy forest with the occasional Japanese shrine or statue peaking through the pink and white clouds of flowers. I walked by group of friends cheerfully eating, drinking, and observing the blossoms from their blankets, a pair of old women eating their lunches on a bench in the sun as blossoms fell around them. 

Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

After a few days of blossom therapy, my nerves calmed, I had a day off, and I dove head-first into the action with a yozakura (literally meaning night sakura) and my first weekend hanami. Weekend and night celebrations are much larger and usually involve carnival-style games, live music (or at least a few people with personal playlists), and food stalls. This is one of the best times and places to try your tastebuds at legit Japanese street food, like takoyaki (octopus balls), grilled clams, decorative marzipan sweets, shioyaki (grilled mackerel skewers), and taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes filled with custard and chocolate). And, while being able to appreciate the cherry blossoms during the day can be a gorgeous sight, night blossom displays can be outright stunning thanks to intricate lighting set up and positioned to bring the blossoms alive in the dark of night. Plus, the festive lighted lanterns add to the overall exotic vibe.    

Grilled squid skewers, Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven
Grilled squid skewers, Photo by Katherine Alex Beaven

If you can’t make it over to Japan for hanami, don’t fret! There are a few places right here in the U.S. that have beautiful cherry blossom celebrations (though you’ll miss out on the traditional food and drink). Washington, D.C. is a famous spot for cherry blossom viewing in the states and features over 1,000 cherry trees either imported or gifted from Japan in the early 1900s, with the most popular viewing spot being along the Tidal Basin, which gives spectacular views of the Washington monument and Jefferson Memorial in the distance. In New York City, the Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a dedication section of cherry trees in the Cherry Esplanade, featuring a double-flowering kanzan variety. Visitors can bring blankets and snacks, though no alcohol is allowed on the property. There’s even an annual festival called Sakura Matsuri, slated for when the majority of the trees are in full-bloom.

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