Cherry Blossom Season: Japan’s Hanami Festival
When cherry blossoms bloom, you really know spring has arrived. With branches covered in clusters of fluffy pink or white flowers, it’s a glorious sight, and if you feel like celebrating at this time, you’re not alone! In their native Japan, cherry blossom (sakura) trees play an important part in the country’s culture and traditions. Cherry blossom flowers are the national symbol of Japan and even have their own festival, called hanami (meaning ‘contemplation of flowers’).
- Meanings of sakura
- History of hanami
- Hanami today
- Hanami in the UK
- Famous sakura trees
- Grow your own
Meanings of sakura
Cherry blossoms are a symbolic flower of the spring, a time for new beginnings, as well as the fleeting nature of life. As the blossoms last for only a few weeks, they are seen as a symbol of the fleeting but joyful nature of life. Hanami encourages us to find joy in the present moment and to observe what is happening around us in nature. They also symbolise peace and friendship, with cherry blossom trees being given as gifts on diplomatic visits to other countries.
History of hanami
Hanami is a tradition dating back more than a thousand years to the Heian period (794-1185), in which people gather beneath the sakura trees with friends and family to eat, drink and observe the beauty of the sakura blossom. Originally the cherry blossom season signalled the start of the rice planting season, and so people made offerings to the gods of the Shinto faith, who were believed to live in the trees.
Japanese literature reflects the lasting importance of the flower, with a royal hanami party depicted in the 11th century Tale of Genji and cherry blossoms featuring heavily in the poems of Hoshi and Basho.
Since medieval times, cherry blossoms have also been associated with the military, symbolising the brief but glorious lives of soldiers. An old proverb which states that the best blossom is the cherry blossom; the best man is the warrior has endured from the time of the Samurai to the Second World War, when bomber planes were given the name ‘Cherry Blossoms’.
Since the end of the war, Japan has given thousands of cherry blossom trees as gifts to other nations as a symbol of lasting peace, and as the cherry trees have spread throughout the world, so has the hanami tradition.
Hanami season today is a time for friends, family and colleagues to get together beneath the cherries for parties, barbecues, drinks and reunions. Popular parks in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto are crowded with people enjoying the blossoms, and special pink drinks, snacks and bento boxes are made for the occasion. Everything seems to be cherry blossom flavoured, and sakura tea is a popular choice - this is made from pickled cherry blossoms and is traditionally served at weddings and other celebrations. The trees at night are strung with fairy lights, and parties go on even when night falls - after all, since the season is so short, why not make the most of it?
Hanami in the UK
Here in the UK there are plenty of places to celebrate hanami season. There are cherry blossom festivals up and down the UK from Alnwick Garden in Northumberland to Brogdale in Kent and many other places for sakura spotting from National Trust gardens to suburban streets. There are no rules, so why not throw your own hanami party?
Get inspired - see what we found when we visited Durham’s Sakura Friendship Garden.
Famous sakura trees
Japan is home to over two hundred varieties of cherry blossom tree, and as you’d expect, there are many ancient and beautiful examples throughout the country - here are a few of the best trees and where to see them.
1. The Philosopher’s Path
You’ll find this 2km canalside walk in Kyoto, lined on either side by hundreds of cherry blossom trees. It’s named after the philosopher Nishida KItaro, who would walk here daily on his commute to and from Kyoto University, and is now one of Kyoto’s top hanami spots.
2. The Weeping Cherry of Gion
Kyoto is also the home of Gion no Yozakura or the Weeping Cherry of Gion, which can be seen in Maruyama Park. It’s over twelve metres tall and around a century old. Its name in Japanese means ‘night time cherry tree’ - naturally it’s illuminated at night throughout the hanami season!
3. Mount Yoshino
Probably Japan’s most famous Hanami destination, the town of Yoshino is surrounded by over 30,000 cherry blossom trees which grow on the Kii mountains. On Mount Yoshino itself, you’ll find an enormous weeping sakura tree which is lit up at night - why not try it with your own?
4. The Waterfall Cherry Tree
Miharu is the home of the huge weeping pink cherry tree known as Takizakura, or the Waterfall Cherry Tree. It’s over a thousand years old, and its sweeping branches are now propped up with wooden supports. Takizakura was declared a national monument in 1922.
5. The Stone Splitting Cherry Tree
Ishiwari-zakura, the Stone Splitting Cherry Tree, started life as a seedling in a tiny crack in a boulder, then grew and grew until it split the boulder in half. This four hundred year old tree, which can be seen in Morioka, could teach us all a thing or two about persistence!
Image source: Flickr.
Grow your own
With trees available in every size and shape, it’s easy to bring the beauty of cherry blossom to your own garden and start your own hanami tradition. These are a few of our favourites:
Tai-Haku is a classic white cherry blossom tree like those you’ll find in Japanese parks. It grows to 5x5m, making it ideal for medium to large gardens as a feature tree - and it’s big enough to sit under. Like all cherry blossoms, Tai-Haku also has stunning autumn foliage.
2. Pink Perfection
Award winning Pink Perfection has some of the best flowers you’ll see in spring, with large clusters of rose pink, fluffy double flowers covering every branch. At 4x4m it’s a nice compact size with a huge impact.
Weeping Yoshino is the perfect choice for a smaller garden, growing to just 2.5m tall. It makes a sensational centrepiece for a front garden or border, with snow white blossom and an elegantly weeping shape.
Want that in pink? Kiku-shidare is a beautifully compact tree with fluffy pompom-like pink blossoms, which can be grown in a bed, border or large pot.
These tall, slender cherry blossom trees are a clever way of packing more flowers into a small space. Amanogawa is just 1m wide and brings big sakura energy to even the tightest spot. They’re also perfect for creating a tall hedge or row of trees.
Missing hanami season already? Bring back the blossom with Autummnalis, the cherry blossom that flowers from November to March. The flowers emerge white in late autumn and take on a pink blush as they mature - they also have a wonderful fragrance.four step guide.