Spring has come to Japan and with it the ephemeral cherry blossom season!
For a few short weeks each year, the sakura tree buds, blossoms, and then loses its flowers in a brief but gorgeous display. For people in Japan, the cherry blossom is not only a sign that spring has arrived, but it’s also seen by many as a metaphor for the transience of human life. During this time, people go out in droves to enjoy the centuries-old tradition of hanami, a kind of picnic that takes place beneath the cherry blossom tree. Families and friends pack bento lunches and find a spot at a park to eat and drink together. In addition, schools and offices often hold hanami welcome parties for new students and employees because the cherry blossom season coincides with the start of the new school and business year in Japan.
Due to the importance of the cherry blossom in Japanese culture, Japan has an abundance of words related to the sakura season.
“Kaika” (開花) refers to flowers blooming, and there are seven stages to indicate how far the sakura have blossomed. “Tsubomi” (つぼみ), meaning bud, is the stage when small sakura buds begin to dot tree branches making them look fuller. When the flower buds first begin to blossom, it’s called “sakihajime” (咲き始め). There are numerous websites dedicated to tracking when the first cherry blossoms open. Okinawa, being further south than the rest of Japan, sees its first bloom in January, well ahead of spring. In mid-to-late March, the cherry blossoms then begin to open in Kyushu, Shikoku, and the southernmost part of the mainland Honshu, working its way up slowly to northern Honshu and Hokkaido where you can still enjoy hanami during Golden Week at the beginning of May.
The next stages are “gobuzaki” (５分咲き), meaning half-bloom, and then “shichibuzaki” (７分咲き), which is when around 70% of the sakura have opened. “Mankai” (満開) is the stage when cherry blossoms reach full bloom. This is the height of the peak season and the best time to enjoy sakura. Once the flower petals begin to fall, it’s called “chirihajime” (散り始め). The blossoms make way for “hazakura” (葉桜), the fresh green leaves that appear after the blooming period.
While the most common type of sakura tree in Japan has five petals on its blossoms, other species can have 10, 20, or up to 100 petals per flower. These are called “yaezakura” (八重桜).
In addition to enjoying cherry blossoms during the daytime, many people also enjoy nighttime sakura viewing, or “yozakura” (夜桜). The cherry blossom trees are lit up with lanterns or spotlights, and some areas may have food and drink stands, which creates a festival-like atmosphere. Yozakura hanami parties can be a fun occasion to get together with friends or coworkers for a few after-work drinks during the sakura season.
There’s More Than one Type of Cherry Blossom Tree!
There are literally hundreds of different species of sakura that you may encounter during the cherry blossom season.
Somei Yoshino is the most widely seen variety of cherry blossom tree in Japan. It has the quintessential five-petal blossom shape that comes in shades of white to very light pink. The leaves do not appear until after it’s finished blooming, which gives the tree an intense blossom-covered appearance.
The Kawazu-zakura is a modern variety of cherry blossom that blooms much earlier and has a longer blooming period than other species. It’s in flower from the beginning of February to early March and is known for its large pink blossoms. Kawazu City, located on the Izu Peninsula, is the birthplace of this kind of sakura and holds an annual cherry blossom festival that attracts nearly two million people a year.
Shidare-zakura are several types of “weeping” cherry trees that can grow very large and live a long time. Their flower colors range from white to pink.
Ukon is a type of cherry blossom that opens a little later than other varieties. It’s easy to spot because of its distinctive yellow flowers.
If you’re planning to do hanami this year, here are a few tips and things to remember.
- Look for a spot early. During the peak of the hanami season, parks can get quite crowded so it’s not uncommon for someone to arrive early in the morning to claim a spot before the rest of the group arrives.
- Bring a tarp, or a “blue sheet” as they’re commonly called in Japan, to sit on. It’s polite to take off your shoes and leave them at the edge of the tarp, so you might not want to wear that threadbare pair of socks in the back of your sock drawer.
- Prepare food that’s easy to share. While you can pack your own personal bento, it’s fun if everyone also brings something to enjoy together. Finger food and snacks like potato chips are fairly common. If you’re lucky, the park where you have your hanami party may also have food stands but you shouldn’t depend on it. If you need picnic supplies, 100-yen shops often have special displays dedicated to essentials like paper plates, cups, and chopsticks during this season.
- Stock up on a variety of drinks. People typically stop by a convenience store for drinks on the way to a hanami party. Beer and cocktails are fairly standard, although it’s not unheard of to bring a bottle of wine or champagne if you want to class things up a bit. If you’re going the classy route, make sure to pack a corkscrew. Of course, you should also confirm that the park you’re going to allows alcohol. While most parks allow it, a few private parks ban alcohol to keep the atmosphere family-friendly.
- Be prepared for bad weather. In spring, it’s not unusual for the weather to suddenly turn windy, cloudy, or rainy, so bring a jacket. If the weather gets too bad in the middle of your hanami picnic, you may want to abandon ship and head for the nearest karaoke box instead.
- It’s a good idea to bring plenty of oshibori (hand wipes) and hand sanitizer as it can be difficult to find a place to wash your hands, and Japanese public restrooms typically don’t have hot water or even hand soap. You should also bring plenty of paper towels in case of drink spills.
- Don’t forget to pick up and sort your garbage! Hanami season is infamous for its litter problem, as some parks are not well-equipped for the large picnicking crowds. Bring separate bags for your burnables, plastics, and aluminum cans.