Every spring, beginning in Okinawa and spreading north along the Japanese archipelago, all segments of Japanese society keep an eye on the sakura (cherry blossom) front as it envelopes the land in pink petals for a few weeks.
From March to early May, maps of Japan covered with digital sakura blossoms fill the national television news, while people scour websites to find the best hanami (literally, “flower viewing”) spots. Many claim Nara prefecture’s Mt. Yoshino as the nation’s top spot. An iSakura app even allows users to hone in on the best hanami sites via iPhone GPS.
Sakura have bloomed a bit early this spring, and most of the festivities have already been held in Tokyo and parts of southern Japan, but a large swath of Japan is still waiting for the appearance of the nation’s beloved flower.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Hanami has been a tradition for centuries, and at its earliest stems from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, which had a deep appreciation for flowers and influenced Japanese culture deeply during the Nara Period (710-794). It was during this time when umemi took root in Japan, after which sakura (cherry blossoms) came to the fore during the Heian Period (794-1185).
The term “hanami” itself became synonymous with sakura viewing after the word was used as such in The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu and often considered the world’s first novel.
Throughout their long history of association, sakura have taken on a specific significance in Japanese culture. They were once used to divine the year’s harvest, as well as mark the beginning of rice planting season. According to Shinto, cherry trees were believed to house kami (gods) and were treated with reverence—often including offerings of sake.