Cherry trees bloom for about two weeks in early spring and are a national obsession. News shows and travel companies offer trackers and updates so you can plan your hanami parties. The ideas behind hanami, which means flower viewing, are quintessentially Japanese. The changing of the seasons matter a lot here, seasonal foods and activities are a big part of life. As well, the fleeting time to enjoy the flowers reminds everybody of the fleeting beauty of life and that we should enjoy what we have, while we have it. The sakura are often blooming during the first few really warm days of spring, so we all appreciate the chance to break free from our hibernation at home and enjoy the sunny weather with friends.
The hanami parties themselves usually revolve around lots of people, plenty of good snacks, and a prodigious amount of alcohol. The libation of choice is usually nihonshu (sake), the Japanese national drink. Umeshu (plum wine), wine, beer, whisky and mixed drinks are also popular. Basically, if it functions as a social lubricant, you can find it at a hanami party. Some groups just get together on tarps and hang out chatting, eating and drinking. But some people really go all out, with portable grills, small tables and even tents. Once walking through Yoyogi park in Tokyo during the height of the cherry blossom season I saw a group of foreigners who had the presence of mind to bring a beer pong set up, complete with a big table and plenty of red Dixie Cups. On the same day I also saw some Japanese people who had ordered a pizza to be delivered to the park entry gate. Now that is a great idea. Really there is no wrong way to do hanami, the idea is to enjoy the company, comestibles and the fine spring weather.
Every town in Japan has somewhere to enjoy the cherry blossoms. In the bigger cities things can get very crowded. In Tokyo parks like Yoyogi or Ueno get so jammed with humanity that you can barely walk without stumbling over a group of merry makers. Though even the smaller towns get in on the action. Often there is a bit of a festival feeling, with food stalls set up selling yakitori and takoyaki and sometimes music playing.
As you can imagine this is a big time for companies that sell alcohol to make some extra money. Sankt Gallen makes a Sakura beer that is perfect for drinking while viewing the flowers themselves. Some larger companies like Asahi have released cherry blossom themed cans of their standard beers.
I have always loved hanami. After the dreary chill of winter what better is there to celebrate spring then partying outside with your friends? What is your favorite hanami drink? and hanami spot? Let me know!