Literally translated as “flower viewing,” today’s hanami actually refers to cherry blossom-viewing picnics and parties that take place during cherry blossom season. In Japan during the Nara Period (710–793), members of the nobility enjoyed eating food, drinking sake, and watching performances while flowers were in bloom, but the flower was not usually a cherry blossom but rather a plum flower. During the Heian Period (794–late twelfth century), the popularity of cherry blossoms exceeded that of plum flowers, and even the term “flower” came to refer to cherry blossoms. Then in the Muromachi Period (1332–1573), the hanami custom spread to the samurai class.
Although hanami was originally entertainment for high-class people, it became popular among commoners in the eighteenth century. You can get a good sense of how they enjoyed hanami in those days by listening to rakugo (Japanese traditional comic storytelling). Several famous stories that borrow settings from hanami are Hanami Zake, Hyakunen-me, and Atamayama. The most famous one is probably Nagaya no Hanami. Poor residents in a nagaya (terraced house) in downtown Edo (Tokyo) set out for hanami, led by a stingy landlord. Since they are so poor, they substitute takuan (pickled radish that has a yellow color) for tamagoyaki (egg custard), daikon radish for kamaboko (fish cake), and diluted green tea for sake. Even though what they bring is miserable, their mood is uplifted. But the festive mood and their frustration with their poverty causes a commotion. Today, hanami resembles a festival with its many vendors and performance stages, so the words “hanami” and “sakura matsuri” (cherry blossom festival) are used interchangeably.
There are many varieties of cherry blossoms, but the most common one in Japan is Someiyoshino, which has five pale pink petals. Some other popular types are shidare-zakura (the one with willow-like, bending branches), yae-zakura (the one with multiple petals), and yama-zakura (the primeval variety often found in the mountains). Each hanami area is unique, offering different types of cherry blossoms and a different backdrop for the blossoms. It’s hard to pick the best one, but some famous hanami spots are: Yoshino in Nara Prefecture, where yama-zakura cover the entire Yoshino Mountain; Hirosaki Kōen in Aomori Prefecture, where 2,600 Someiyoshino trees grow around Hirosaki Castle; Osaka-Zōheikyoku, which has 120 varieties and 400 trees planted alongside the river; and Ueno Kōen in Tokyo, which is famous for its beautiful illuminated trees at night.
Japanese people enjoy cherry blossoms not only when the flowers are in full bloom but also at various points during the blossoms’ short lives. Everyone has his or her own favorite time to appreciate the beauty of the blossoms. In the case of Someiyoshino, once the dark pink buds bloom, they become a whitish pink. So when they are in 50% bloom, for example, people can enjoy a mixture of different colors. Also, after the full bloom, the sight of petals fluttering in the wind is also elegant. It is important to know the date of blooming in order to pick a day for hanami, and people rely on official information from the Japanese Meteorological Agency, which announces its predicted blooming dates each year.