Looking in Japan 2: hanami

In Japan I was blown away by the beautiful ways in which the seasons are culturally celebrated. We were there during winter, and the Sapporo Snow Festival about which I wrote here is a good example of what I mean – a glorious collective celebration of winter, using all the creative potentials of snow. Elemental, exciting, inspiring, public-spirited and outdoors, I found the snow festival deeply moving. It was a wonderful way of using civic space to pay tribute to the snow and ice, and to bring everyone together to experience them at their most inspiring. Memories of joy and beauty bound up with slippery pavements and not being able to see for snowflakes will stay with me forever.

With its urban placement, lasers and music, the snow festival has an almost futuristic texture… but it also felt old; a contemporary expression of something deep and special embedded in Japanese culture long ago. Visiting the highly recommended Ukiyo-e museum in Harajuku, I was struck by how something similar to the snow festival and its feeling goes back much further back in time and can be seen in wood block prints from the Edo-period in Japan (1603-1868), which show people sculpting the snow, playing in the snow, falling over in the snow, admiring the beauty of the snow, having fun in, and at the same time giving thanks for, the snow, much the same then as now…

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…at the same time as appreciating and loving the snow, I couldn’t help but notice that the stationery shops wherever we went were preparing for the next seasonal celebration: hanami.

Hanami or “flower viewing” is described as follows on Wikipedia:

Hanami is the traditional Japanese custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers. Flowers are “hana” in this case almost always referring to those of the cherry (sakura) or, less frequently, plum (ume) trees. From the end of March to early May, cherry trees bloom all over Japan, and from around the first of February on the island of Okinawa. The blossom forecast is announced each year by the weather bureau, and is watched carefully by those planning hanami as the blossoms only last a week or two. In modern-day Japan, hanami mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the sakura during daytime or at night. Hanami at night is called yozakura meaning “night sakura”. In many places temporary paper lanterns are hung for the purpose of yozakura.

A more ancient form of hanami also exists in Japan, which is enjoying the plum blossoms instead, which is narrowly referred to as “umemi” (plum-viewing). This kind of hanami is popular among older people, because it tends to be calmer than the sakura parties, which usually involve younger people and can sometimes be very crowded and noisy.

I would love to go back to Japan in order to enjoy hanami for myself in that country. I imagine that like the snow festival, the modern forms the celebrations take draw on a much older tradition that can be glimpsed in woodblock prints from the Edo period, and that they are elemental, exciting, inspiring, public-spirited and outdoors.

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The evident enthusiasm for cherry blossom in Japan is beautiful and uplifting. Motifs and colours and artwork based on the distinctive five-pointed petals can be seen everywhere and were even the focus for the artwork decorating a room in which we stayed.

Instagram buddies may have already seen that my talented friend and comrade Yumiket has immortalised a version of sakura in this very beautiful piece of knitted correspondence – I love how she has captured the delicacy of cherry blossom in her knitting.

As long-term readers of KNITSONIK may have detected, I’m a huge fan of celebrating the everyday. Many aspects of Japanese culture speak to that creative instinct, and it was amazing for me to go to a place where such importance is given to things like the changes of the seasons and everyday rituals like making tea. Since we returned from our honeymoon I have been looking for ways of drawing some of the magic of our honeymoon into daily life in Reading.

Memories are present in Japanese stickers, washi tape, tableware and textiles, but we also formed impressions there that have stayed with us as more lasting, subtle souvenirs. For example I am more aware than I have ever been before about blossoming times here in Reading, and of the colours of blossom, and of its presence in the green spaces around where we live. I am more thankful for it, too.

There’s a wonderful botanical garden – the Harris Garden – about a half-hour walk from our home in which there is a circle of Japanese cherry blossoms. We went to see them last weekend and found that while one great pink tree was fully in bloom, many were just on the brink of blossoming. Yesterday we went back with my trusty SLR and spent much time admiring and smelling the open flowers. It was lovely to share this experience with other comrades doing the same including several Japanese families and students. The jolly, informal gathering of people out in the sunshine admiring blossoms was not on the same scale of the National celebrations of Japan, but it gave me the slightest feeling for hanami, for which I’m grateful. In our current depressing political climate it feels to me both sensible and necessary to give thanks for reassuring things like spring and flowers.

Thank you, Japan, for helping us love and appreciate the appearance of the blossom more than we did before. I have tried to capture a little bit of hanami in my photos and to share that with you here, sorry, I got a bit carried away.

Just as we were leaving the gardens, we saw a glorious crab apple tree with flowers much darker than the cherry blossoms from which we heard some glorious birdsong…

…peeping up through the branches we found this guy (a Goldfinch I think?) singing his heart out…

…I hope to return to the Harris Gardens soon so I can record his song and share that with you too.

In the meantime, I hope you can find time to admire the blossoms wherever you are, and to enjoy some sense of hanami for yourself.


6 thoughts on “Looking in Japan 2: hanami

  1. I love this post so so much. I saw many people celebrating the cherry trees at Kew on Saturday and was very cheered/over joyed by this prospect. It so joyous to celebrate Spring and Flowers and Sunlight! I also like the sense of creating rituals in the everyday (which you know I love). I’m really trying to do this to help me form habits for things I want to do and thing it is a brilliant way to try to hold on your honeymoon feeling.

  2. What a feast for the eyes! And I bet it smelled like heaven. Thank you so much for sharing these lovely scenes. Boy do we need them right now.

  3. Oh to be a bee and live among the blossoms for a fortnight or so each year! They were so happy pottering around the puffy clouds of flowers yesterday, carrying pollen from one tree to another. Nice work if you can get it!

    Love your post xxx

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