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Cherry Blossom And Hanami

Updated on January 15, 2018
Alex Anghel profile image

Alex has been a biologist for 13 years. She obtained her Diploma at University of Pitesti.

Summary

The history of Japanese culture is unique and the observations made in this context should not be applied to the history of another culture. However, like other societies Japan has gone through large social and cultural changes that are reflected in the changing significance of its bonds to nature. The study of the history of hanami, the ritual appreciation of cherry blossoms, by Sylvie Brosseau (2007) reveals an interlancing of changes and continuities of the material and the cognitive as well as imaginary aspects of landscapes places predicated upon a very slow change of ritualized practices.

Cherry trees alley in a park
Cherry trees alley in a park | Source

Blossom forecasts are produced daily at the beginning of the spring to help plan the sakura, or cherry blossom season

Hanami (花見), centuries-old Japanese tradition, literally means „flower viewing”, but it commonly refers only to cherry blossoms (sakura). The cherry blossoms, known in Japan as sakura, are well know around the world for their radiant, delicate and transient beauty. However they are more than simply beautiful trees, as the sakura have powerful ties to Japan’s history, culture and identity Hanami in the literal sense of the word may therefore be enjoyed anywhere in japan, in or out of town, but understood in the popular acceptance we all know, it is something more than “seeing the blossoms”.

In Japan the blooming of the cherry blossom trees is one of the very best ways to welcome spring, an occasion for merriment and the contemplation of life’s beauty and transience. The ritual of hanami correlates collective time (the changing of seasons concerns all of society) and individual time (concerning access to a new status for employees, students or new members of specific groups). Group of people engage in a ritual of purification during an evening spent under the cherry blossoms while drinking and exchanging memories about events of the past year, thus preparing a fresh start for the social, educational and business opportunities of the New Year. During the hole night, the boss of the company listens to exchanges between the employees venting their feelings about the vents in the firm during the past year. These rituals give raise to share dramatic experiences in which everyone is both actor ans spectator. It is a time for collective and public renewal of self that transposes the ancient rural ritual into a modern urban context, thus anchoring the new self in both the deep (almost mythical) and the recent past.

Every year, hanami synchronizes society and individuality, history and nature in the environment. Society and nature again become impregnated by the order of nature, and social order is instituted as a natural order. The ritual stimulates memory and links the present to a certain past. Social groups are again asserting themselves, reinforcing a strong social continuity as a prelude to renewed activities. The social structure is revitalized by this common experience, and the ritual consolidates integrative links. The ritual of hanami contributes to a better insertion of the individual in his society and his culture, while enchanting his daily life.

The spontaneous practice of hanami went through periods of drastic change, even for disruption, and yet its survival demonstrates that it has maintained significance and still provides memories intangible past attitudes toward nature.

The fragile blossoming flowers are seen as a metaphor for life itself; splendid and beautiful yet brief and fleeting. In other words: life is short, enjoy it while you can and make the most of it!

History

Hanami is an ancient practice of rural villagers who went into countryside to meet the kami, the Shinto gods coming down from the higher mountains where they lived in the spring. Rural people were purified by these encounters at a most important time of the year, just before the beginning of the agricultural season.

Origins Of Hanami

The custom is said to have started during the Nara Period (710-784) when the Chinese Tang Dynasty influenced Japan in many ways; one of which was the custom of enjoying flowers. Though it was ume blossoms that people admired in the beginning, by the Heian Period, sakura came to attract more attention. From then on, in tanka and haiku, "flowers" meant "sakura."

When the imperial court was based in Nara in the 700’s, local aristocrats would read Chinese poems celebrating the transient beauty of plum blossoms. In their gardens, each flower’s location became a new venue for poetry writing events or places to engage in other artistic endeavors, such as calligraphy, flower arrangement, and painting. The most common flowers were wisteria, plum blossoms, peach blossoms, and ultimately cherry blossoms which were treasured for their brief yet brilliant bloom.

By the Heian Period, the term hanami had become synonymous with cherry blossom viewing specifically, and not just flower viewing in general. The Emperor Saga used to welcome this flower viewing time with celebratory feast and parties under Cherry trees in Kyoto’s Imperial Court during Heian Period. It was the time, only upper class people have the right to practice it.


The Japanese proverb ”Hhana yori dango” (dumplings over flowers) suggests that for some cherry blossoms viewers food is more important than the beauty of the blooms. Hanami dango – a dish consisting of three dumplings on a skewer, one pink, one white and one green – is eaten during cherry blossom season.

Hanami In The Premodern Era

The Heian Period, essentially ended with the rise of the samurai class. Eventually, in the 1500’s, a warlord named Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified the country. He sought to legitimize the samurai – not just as warriors, but as protectors of aristocratic cultural practices. It’s here that we first find paintings of high ranking samurai, called daimyō, enjoying hanami – placing themselves on par with the imperial court. Hideyoshi encouraged the warriors to engage in other arts such as poetry, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.

Hanami parties blossomed in popularity during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568-1600) with the most elaborate of the parties held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Yoshino and Daigo. These parties are depicted on famous folding screens that show scenes from the festivities.

Shortly after that farmers began their own custom of climbing nearby mountains in the springtime and having lunch under the blooming cherry trees. This practice, then known as the "spring mountain trip," became fused with that of the nobles' to form the urban culture of hanami. By the Edo Period (1600-1867) commoners began to partake in the festivities, partly as a result of Tokugawa Yoshimune planting cherry blossom trees in public areas to encourage the custom. The cherry trees from Yoshino became the favorite variety until present day. Starting with the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, many meisho (famous places) were created by planting large numbers of Yoshino Cherry trees and inviting the public.

Modern Hanami

When japan was opened to Western culture in the Meiji era (1868-1912), the government attempted to transform Edo into a modern city, shifting from Chinese to Western models in its quest for cultural development. Most of the old meishos were destroyed to leave room for new forms of land use; only later did the creation of the new public park in the Western manner at Hibbiya, and the designation as park of a few other places allow the renewal of hanami. More parks have been created since, enjoyed by large crowds of Tokyo dwellers who celebrate the New Year by enjoying the cherry blossom.

Today, the Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami, gathering in great numbers wherever the flowering trees are found. Like there forefathers the Japanese gather with friends and family underneath the cherry blossoms to have lunch or dinner and to marvel at the beauty of flowering Sakura trees. Thousands of people fill the parks to hold feasts under the flowering trees, and sometimes these parties go on until late at night. In more than half of Japan, the cherry blossoming period coincides with the beginning of the scholastic and fiscal years, and so welcoming parties are often opened with hanami.

People enjoying hanami at night
People enjoying hanami at night | Source

Couples go at night to enjoy the special mood created by cherry blossoms. Hanami at night is called yozakura.

What Cherry Tree Variety Are We Seeing Today?

Until the end of the Edo Period, people viewed various cherry blossom varieties, including yamazakura, edohigan and kanhizakura.

But after the someiyoshino hybrid was artificially created, probably in the late Edo Period or early Meiji Era (1868-1912), the variety has become extremely popular in Japan thanks to its beautiful, slightly-pinkish blossoms. Someiyoshino now probably accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all sakura trees in Japan.

All someiyoshino trees are planted using a technique called tsugiki (grafting). This means all existing someiyoshino trees have identical DNA, the exact reason most sakura in Japan blossom, then subsequently fall, almost simultaneously.

This synchronization makes the scenery of cherry blossoms even more stunning, probably another reason someiyoshino are dominant in Japan.

Cherry Blossoms at Nijo Castle
Cherry Blossoms at Nijo Castle | Source

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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      6 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is an interesting article. A cherry blossom festival and a Sakura Days Japan Fair are held where I live. I will be thinking about your hub as I view the blossoms.

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