March 23, 2017

A Neophyte's Guide to Hanami

Cherry blossom season is one of the most popular times to visit Japan and this guide will teach you how to enjoy the local tradition of hanami.

The Kawaguchiko area is great for cherry blossoms and hanami parties

Hanami (lit. “flower viewing”) is the traditional annual Japanese custom of enjoying the transience of the country’s legendary cherry blossoms or sakura as the locals call them. Every year, beginning in the latter half of March, Japan’s sakura emerge from their long dormancy awakening in bursts of breathtaking pink hues. Given that hanami is one of the most quintessential Japanese experiences, it’s no surprise that spring is also a popular period for foreign tourists to visit Japan. Today, we will take a quick look at the history of hanami as well as some key pointers to keep in mind for your maximum enjoyment.

According to historical records, the practice of hanami is well over 1,000 years old and dates back to the Nara period (710–794). Initially, the plum blossoms were admired during hanami. Yet when Kyoto (then called Heian-kyo) became the capital, the sakura tree had come into its own and thus hanami became synonymous with viewing the cherry blossoms. The term hanami itself first appears within the legendary Tale of Genji written by one of Japan’s first female authors, Murasaki Shikibu.

Originally, Japanese sake was offered to the sakura trees as a divine rite. Over time it became common for feasts to be held under the exquisite blossoms. The Edo period (1603–1868) ushered in the practice of drinking with friends and loved ones during hanami. Soon, this celebratory tradition became cemented in Japanese culture. Both commoners and samurai alike would revel in the beauty under the sakura trees while sharing copious amounts of food and drink.

The yearly tradition of hanami is continued today and gatherings can be found wherever the trees are in blossom. Every year, without fail, hordes of Japanese citizens will descend upon the country’s most famous viewing spots with their trusty blue tarp mats in hand. Typically, someone is assigned the unfortunate task of arriving very early in the morning to stake out a preferred spot. Come noon, parks located within major cities are bustling with intoxicated albeit well behaved revelers. Indeed, hanami is one of the merriest times of the year and perhaps the best season for mingling with the locals.

That said, this sea of flesh and booze can often be overwhelming for the uninitiated so I’ve put together the following few pointers to keep in mind when thinking about your first hanami. It is a quintessential Japanese experience but it can often end in disaster if you’re not thoroughly prepared.

1. Come Early to the Hanami & Bring a Tarp or Blanket

People enjoy a hanami party in Tokyo’s Ueno Park

As mentioned above, if you wait until the middle of the day to show up at your chosen hanami spot you can expect all of the best locations to be happily occupied. In the major parks, people often head out to stake their claim as early as the first train (around 5 AM). While you certainly don’t need to get a move on that early, you should definitely consider having someone get there well before you might otherwise think.

The most important item your party needs to bring is a tarp or blanket for marking out your space. Without such a critical possession you’ll be hard pressed to claim the boundaries of your territory. As I’ve indicated before, the popular places for hanami tend to fill up completely. Often times you’ll find the edges of your tarp or blanket overlapping with those of your neighbors.

2. For God’s Sake, Pace Yourself at the Hanami!

Revelers continue the hanami party until late at night

One of the biggest mistakes made by both hanami neophytes and veteran locals alike is not realizing that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. A good hanami party can drag on from noon to the middle of the night. Trying to be overzealous will only lead to you passing out in an embarrassing position and/or place.

If you think the legions of dead drunk salarymen lining Shinjuku station are a sight to behold then you’ve seen nothing yet! Ignore this warning at your own peril.

3. Bring A LOT of Food & Water to the Hanami

People bring drinks and bento box lunches to a hanami party

While many of the more popular hanami spots will have vendor stalls selling delectables, water, and yes even more booze, they are often priced exorbitantly. After all, there are thousands of potential customers nearby and the lines at the nearest convenience stores can be up twenty minutes long. Be wise, and bring your own preparations! You’ll thank me later.

Again, hanami are marathons and not sprints. Be sure to eat enough food and drink enough water to keep your wits about you. By all means crack open a few cold ones and enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms but just be sure you don’t join the ranks of the intoxicated zombies!

4. Toilets are Crowded During the Hanami Season

Toilets are often extemely crowded during peak hanami season

Lavatory facilities located within most major parks are designed with “normal” use in mind. You can imagine how well these hold up then when 100x the regular amount of people show up for hanami! If this weren’t bad enough, most convenience stores also close their bathrooms for the hanami season to avoid overcrowding the store. Make a mental note of the nearest bathrooms and be prepared to wait for up to half an hour!

The gentlemen out there are in luck however! My male readers will take delight in knowing hanami offers them a chance to indulge in the ancient Japanese tradition of peeing in the bushes (an exterior wall is also acceptable). Simple to do! Just find a relatively out of sight spot which is devoid of comatose revelers, unzip, and share a drunken giggle with the other boys who are also relieving themselves. Please do not commit a cultural faux pas by looking down at your neighbor's though!

5. Consider Alternatives to Major Spots for Hanami

Nara Prefecture’s Mt. Yoshino is a great alternative for hanami season

The most popular hanami spots like Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park are usually packed to the brim with young Japanese revelers. What’s more, things can get a little wild later in the night as inhibitions go out the window. If you’re a little bit older and looking for a more subdued vibe, I highly suggest that you consider some alternative spots just off the beaten path. These quaint spots still offer a similar (if not better) experience while allowing you to escape the hordes. If you have small children, I highly suggest you consider one of the alternatives listed here.

If you happen to be in the Kansai area, I recommend you make the trek out to Mt. Yoshino (pictured above). Though no real hidden gem, it has long been considered one of Japan’s favored locations for viewing the cherry blossoms. Nevertheless, its relatively removed location means less debauchery which will certainly be center stage at any of the central spots.

There you have it! My five tips for surviving your first hanami. If you’re in town and want to meet up over the weekend to see some sakura, please don’t hesitate to connect with me on social media or contact me directly.