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  • Writer's pictureMaya Kirby

The Japanese Festival of Cherry Blossom

Spring is here! Birds are chirping, leaves are beginning to unfurl, and the mornings are getting brighter. In Japan, the arrival of spring is famously marked by the hanami (花見・はなみ) festival. Its literal translation means 'observing flowers', and people celebrate it when the cherry blossoms begin to bloom. Depending on the region and weather, hanami celebrations can occur anywhere between March and May. But what are the origins of this springtime festival, and what traditions are there?

Originally a practice of appreciating spring flowers, hanami is over 1000 years old. Since ancient times, people felt there was something spiritual about the blossoms. Many people believed in gods, or 'kami', which were earth-spirits associated with nature and the universal life force. Kami were thought to inhabit landscapes such as waterfalls, hills, and trees. So, when the trees bloomed in spring, people would leave offerings of rice and sake to the kami inside the trees.

Sakura is the term that means 'cherry blossom' specifically. Sakura was used as a fortune-telling tool to predict the outcome of the future harvest. However, specific hanami celebrations started during the Heian period (18th to 11th Century). Emperor Saga began to celebrate hanami - by holding feasts underneath the cherry trees in the Imperial Court.

Books and poems written during this time explored the fleeting beauty of the sakura flowers. Because of this, hanami began to take on a philosophical element, not just celebration. The following is an excerpt from a poem written during this time:

"In these spring days,

when tranquil light encompasses

the four directions,

why do the blossoms scatter

with such uneasy hearts?"

Ki no Tomonori (c. 850 – c. 904)

In modern Japan, the hanami celebrations are very similar. Hundreds of people congregate in parks, shrines, and wherever cherry trees grow in numbers. People will sit under the trees, have picnics, listen to music, and drink sake. Often the trees will be lit up at night. Hanami usually involves cherry trees rather than other blossoms. However, some older people prefer to go to parks where plum trees are in bloom instead - it's usually far quieter, with fewer people.

So, with the trees in bloom, are you going to celebrate hanami?

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