Friday, March 3, 2017

Hanami: The Japanese Tradition of Cherry Blossom Appreciation

It's almost cherry blossom season in Japan. This means that people will go out for picnics under a canopy of cherry blossoms, eat, and get drunk off their rockers.

The cherry blossom holds much symbolism within Japan. There are many symbols in Buddhist tradition which symbolize the transient, evanescent nature of life. One of these symbols is the cherry blossom.

The cherry blossom blooms but once a year. The trees sleep through the winter and begin preparing their buds until it finally gets warm enough for them to bloom. After only about a week, the blossoms reach their peak, then its over and the cherry blossoms scatter about, falling to the ground. Thus, the nature of life is often compared to the life of a cherry blossom; such a long time in preparation for but a brief moment of glory, and then death. It reminds me a lot of the Japanese saying "Ichi go, ichi e" (一期一会) which roughly translates to "One life time, one chance." You only get one chance to bloom, so make it the best you can.

One of the biggest and most anticipated festivities celebrated throughout Japan at this time of year is that of hanami (花見). The time-honored tradition of gathering under flowering cherry blossom trees (桜, sakura) and enjoying the blooms over food and drink dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185). While literally translated “hanami” means “flower viewing”, it has come to specifically refer to viewing cherry blossoms.

 People enjoying the cherry blossoms on blue tarps

For the season, parks that have blooming cherry blossom trees prepare special areas for people to have picnics. Trash bins are laid out, and many host food stalls that offer foods like Chinese-style fried chicken (唐揚げ, kara-age), french fries, yakisoba (焼きそば), frankfurters and more.

The blossom forecast is announced each year by the weather bureau and is watched carefully by those planning hanami events, as the blossoms last only a week or two. The cherry blossoms begin to bloom as the days get warmer, and the sakura front (桜前線,sakurazensen) can be observed progressing from Kyushu through Hokkaido, from late March through early May.

This Year's Cherry Blossom Forecast

In modern-day Japan, hanami events consist mostly of having an outdoor party beneath the cherry blossom trees during the daytime, or at night. Hanami at night is called yozakura (夜桜lit. "night sakura"). In many famous cherry blossom orchards, such as in Ueno Park, temporary paper lanterns are hung for the purpose of yozakura. 

 Evening hanami scenes

Thus far, my favorite hanami spot has got to be Shukugawa (夙川), in Hyogo prefecture. Cherry blossom trees line a great part of the Shukugawa River, creating some beautiful scenery with the reflections of the river and the cherry blossoms in full bloom. I have fond memories of my first hanami there as a foreign exchange student in 2001.

 Hanami at Shukugawa

Cherry blossoms are such a big part of Japanese culture that it's to be expected that they will make an appearance in video games. Indeed, one of my most favorite video games, my gateway to Japanese culture, wouldn't be complete without them. They appear almost as soon as the console is turned on.

Haohmaru slicing through a tree and some lanterns, Samurai Shodown 1

They appear in many other video games as well...

Ryoko Izumo's stage takes place in front of a castle
during cherry blossom season, World Heroes 2

 Cherry blossoms appear as part of the ending sequence to Megaman 2

One of the things I really liked about the game Animal Crossing is the attention the creators paid attention to the detail. The game isn't meant to have a definite ending or beginning; it's supposed to be one of those games you could pick up at any time and start playing where you left off. One of the cool things about it is that seasonal changes are programmed into the game. So if you play the game around April, some trees will be cherry blossom trees. It's one of those things that if you don't know Japanese culture, you might be wondering what was going on.

  Cherry blossom trees in Animal crossing. Note the peculiarity;
they're supposed to be cherry trees, yet they bear apples.

Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII had a theme of cherry blossoms going on.