Hana-mi (Cherry-blossom viewing)
For Japanese people, the name of flower viewing is associated with cherry (sakura) blossoms. Hanami is about going out to places such as parks to appreciate and enjoy the beautifully blooming cherry blossoms. In Japan, from the end of March to early April, when the cherry trees are in full bloom, families, friends, and co-workers spread groundcloth under the cherry trees, drink sake, sing songs, and enjoy the coming of spring. At the more popular sites, parties arrive in advance to lay claim to good locations.
The custom of flower viewing has roots in two traditions.
One is the aristocracy. During the Nara period (710-784), plum (ume) blossoms were favored by the nobility and ume was synonymous with the word flower. But it gave way to the cherry by the start of the Heian period (794-1185). The custom of sakura viewing originates from hana-mi parties, which were held at court by Emperor Saga in 812.
The second is the religious festival associated with agriculture. The hana-mi is a long-established tradition among farmers. When spring came, farmers living in the village went up to the nearby hills and mountains to see the cherry blossoms, carrying food and drink. It was believed that the hana-mi was an agricultural ritual to foresee the year's good harvest.
Hana-mi became popular among warriors during the Azuchi Momoyama period (1573-1603). In 1598, Hideyoshi Toyotomi held a hana-mi party at Kyoto's Daigoji temple. It is remembered as the most luxurious one.
It was during the Edo period (1600-1868) that hana-mi spread to the common folk. With the aim of city planning, the Tokugawa shogunate promoted people to plant a number of flowering cherry trees. Yoshimune Tokugawa planted cherry trees in the vicinity of Edo, which contributed to popularization of hana-mi among ordinary folk.
Hana-mi is Unique to Japan
The cherry tree is not endemic to Japan. It grows in Asia, Europe, and other countries. However no other nation in the world has such a hana-mi tradition. The one possible exception is Brazil, where a similar style hana-mi is held by Japanese-Brazilians.
One of the Annual Events in Japan
School in Japan starts in April, as does the social system such as the fiscal year. April's blooming cherry blossoms coincide with the turning point in our lifecycle. Japanese feel special delight in viewing cherry blossoms at hana-mi. Therefore hana-mi has now become a crucial event.
The Cherry Tree in Japan
Westerners associate the sakura with its juicy red fruit. Japanese, on the other hand, associate it with blossoms. There are 100 odd cultivated cherry tree varieties and more than thirty mountain ones in Japan. A number of varieties were cultivated between the Muromachi and Edo period. The most popular variety is the Somei Yoshino, one of the cultivated varieties. When news reports announce that the cherry trees have come into bloom, it is this variety they are usually referring to.