Springtime in Japan is associated with both beginning and ending. Graduation ceremonies are held at the end of March while new school and corporate fiscal years begin in April. Along with these life events bloom sakura (cherry blossoms), a symbolic flower of farewell and celebration. In the early warmth of spring, people gather under sakura trees for hanami (flower viewing) as they enjoy a picnic with family, friends, and colleagues.
History of Hanami
Hanami dates back to the Nara period (710 to 794), when ume (Japanese plum) flower viewing was practiced amongst nobles. Originally influenced by Chinese culture, it shifted from ume to sakura, a sacred tree native to Japan, establishing its own Japanese culture and identity for hanami. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the famous warlords who unified Japan, introduced a "banquet-style" hanami to nobles and warriors by hosting a five-day event attended by 5,000 guests in Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. He also planted 700 sakura trees in Kyoto's Daigo-Ji temple, now a popular UNESCO site. It wasn’t until the Edo period (1603 to 1868) when Iemitsu and Yoshimune Tokugawa shogun planted sakura trees in the Ueno area and the Sumida river did hanami become accessible to the general public. Although sakura was once symbolized as a divine harvest ritual, it transitioned to an annual spring festival for people of all classes.
Sister Flowers: Ume vs. Sakura
Ume and sakura trees are easily mistaken as they share similar features. Ume, with their deep pink flowers, bloom earlier than sakura, typically from around January through to March. On the other hand, sakura bloom at the end of March and only last until early April. Their petals have a cleft in the edge, and the flowers are often white in color with a hint of baby pink. Their color varies depending on the type of sakura and is often surprisingly lighter than what is depicted in paintings and pictures.
Along with the beautiful flowers, sakura also find their way into seasonal foods enjoyed while the flowers bloom.
A signature hanami treat, sanshoku dango are three round mochi (sticky rice) balls, known as dango (one pink, one white and one green) that are served skewered on a bamboo stick. Pink symbolizes springtime sakura, white the remaining snow from winter, and green fresh summer grass. It has a mildly sweet flavor, although pink and green dango can have a slightly earthy or floral taste from the ume, sakura, yomogi (Japanese mugwort) or matcha ingredients. Sanshoku dango was first served in Daigo-Ji temple by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and became part of the hanami experience.
Sakura mochi consist of a pink mochi rice cake filled with a sweet red bean anko paste filling wrapped in a salt pickled sakura leaf. Three hundred years ago, the Chomeiji Sakuramochi shop owner invented this dessert reusing fallen sakura leaves found along the Sumida River. There are two types of sakura mochi: chomeiji sakura mochi, also known as Kanto or Edo style, is served with a crepe-like thin mochi while domyoji sakura mochi consists of a round ball with a rough texture of mochi rice. Domyoji sakura mochi was initially a god's offering served in the Domyoji Temple, but is now recognized as the Kansai or Kamigata style of sakura mochi.
Hanami foods are generally a potluck style of food and drinks. Other items enjoyed while flower viewing include sushi, inarizushi (sweet deep-fried tofu stuffed with sushi rice), spring nanohana vegetables (young cruciferous shoots), kara-age (Japanese fried chicken), tamagoyaki (Japanese egg omelet), and more. Salt pickled sakura flowers are often added to dishes making them more festive and beautiful.
Many poems, songs, movies, and books portray sakura —and some are even used for fortune-telling. Hanami has become a much looked forward to event which represents sakura’s ephemeral experience of how fleeting life is. It reminds us to enjoy and appreciate the present, as the flowers only bloom for a brief time and once the petals have fallen, we have to wait in anticipation until next year to admire the beauty of sakura again.
About the author:
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.