What is Hanami?

An Introduction to the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival

Cherry Blossoms Viewing Party
••• Cherry blossoms are the usual subject of hanami, or flower viewing, in Japan. masahiro Makino/Getty Images

The word is often associated with the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan, but exactly what is hanami?

Hanami (flower viewing) is the ancient tradition of going to enjoy the blooming of cherry blossoms (sakura) -- and sometimes plum blossoms (ume) -- in parks and throughout the countryside in Japan.

While the brilliant-but-fleeting blooms are a great excuse to picnic outside and to enjoy the first signs of spring with loved ones and coworkers, some cherry blossom parties turn into rowdy, social affairs with plenty of sake to go around.

As thousands of people flock to parks, securing the nicer places for picnics and parties in public spaces actually becomes competitive. Many people will go stake out a spot early in the morning or even a day in advance.

When Do the Cherry Blossoms Bloom?

The slow-moving cherry blossom front (sakura-zensen) is tediously tracked by the Japan Meteorological Agency and moves from south to north as warmer temperatures trigger trees to begin blooming. Hanami typically begins around mid March and lasts until early May with the first blooms appearing on the islands around Okinawa. The last chance to enjoy blooms is typically in cooler, northern parts of Japan such as Hakkaido.

The cherry blossoms usually appear in Tokyo and Kyoto sometime between March and April, depending upon the climate that year. Golden Week -- the busiest time for travel in Japan -- often coincides in some places with the blooming cherry blossoms.

How to Enjoy Cherry Blossom Festivals

Simply choose a place with blooming cherry blossoms and enjoy! Festivals pop up all over Japan in public spaces. Celebrations include performing arts, music, parades, lanterns, special foods, and vendors selling handmade goods.

As evening approaches, festivities often turn more into good-natured revelry as sake flows throughout the day. Elderly Japanese sometimes opt to visit Japanese plum parks to view ume instead, as these areas are often less busy and rowdy.

Where to Enjoy Hanami?

With a little timing, you can enjoy blooming trees throughout Japan, including the subtropical areas. Hanami is also celebrated to a lesser extent in China, Korea, and Taiwan. Smaller celebrations can be enjoyed throughout the US and Europe.

The most famous place to celebrate the enjoy hanami in the US is at the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC Between March and April.

The Symbolic Significance of Cherry Blossoms

Because cherry blossoms are beautiful and fleeting -- the blooms often last no more than two weeks -- they have become symbolic for the impermanence of beauty. Cherry blossoms are often featured in works or art and even tattoos to depict the Japanese concept of mono no aware, or the wistful realization that nothing lasts forever.