By now, most of you will know or heard about cherry blossom viewing.
In Japan, this is one of those special occasions that people wait the whole year for, and is called Hanami (花見) or flower viewing . The cherry blossoms herald the arrival of spring, and new life. Farmers start planting rice, winter wear is put away and companies accept the new batch of fresh graduates into their ranks. As all the trees tend to bloom at once, the flowers symbolise clouds and the transient nature of life. This view is influenced by the Japanese view on life or mono no aware (物の哀れ). This transience, or impermanance, touches the Japanese soul and is called mujo (無常).
Cherry blossom viewing was said to have started in the Nara Period (710 – 794 奈良時代 Nara jidai). At that time, the most popular flower was the plum blossom (梅 Ume). However, by the time of the Heian period (794 – 1185 平安時代 Heian jidai), people`s attention moved towards the cherry blossom and hanami became synonymous with it.
This fascination extends to the present day. After the hardship of winter, people look forward to the days getting longer and warmer and the cherry blossoms embody this anticipation. In the weeks before the blooming, Japan goes into overdrive. TV stations and newspapers give a daily forecast of the cherry blossom front (桜前線 sakura zensen) and this information is followed very closely in order to pick the best time to visit and enjoy the floral display.
Normally, cherry blossom season is around the end of March/beginning of April but varies according to geographical location. The warmer regions of Japan like Okinawa and Kyushu start earlier and the colder, northern regions like Tohoku and Hokkaido bloom later. The most popular trees are the Somei Yoshino (染井吉野) and can be found all over. Other types of sakura are Yamazakura (山桜), Kawazu-zakura (河津桜), Shidare-zakura (枝垂桜), Yaezakura (八重桜), Shibazakura (芝桜) and Edo-higanzakura (江戸緋寒桜). There are other varietals but these are the ones most commonly seen.
The most popular past-time during this season is the hanami party. Friends, families and work colleagues all take time out to gather under the trees to enjoy the viewing, eating, drinking and generally having fun and enjoying themselves. For new employees, this is a great way to get to know their new colleagues in an informal setting. Some places, like Tokyo, allow hanami parties to be held at night. These are called yozakura (夜桜 Night sakura). Temporary paper lanterns are hung up around the park, lending a magical air.
Japan being Japan, nothing is ever done without planning! When a group decides it wants to do hanami, there are certain procedures that need to be done.
Firstly, they have to decide the best time to view the cherry blossoms (見頃 Migoro), so careful attention is paid to the daily cherry blossom front forecasts. When the trees are blooming (開花 Kaika) or when they are in full bloom (満開 Mankai) is very important to the enjoyment.
Someone is selected to be the organiser (幹事 Kanji). In companies, this is often one of the juniors or even freshman or girl. He or she will be in charge of the preparation (準備 Junbi). In order to get the best viewing spot, the kanji must visit the park in question and save the location (場所取り Bashotori). This usually involves the spreading of sheets of tarpaulin on the ground under the tree. You will have seen these blue picnic sheets on the ground. They are called レジャーシート (reja-shi-to) and can be bought at any 100円 shop. People write their names and time of use on a sheet of paper and tape it to the sheet. This allows people to use the space before the set time.
Then, food and drinks have to be brought to the location in advance of the arrival of the group. Some hanami parties have BBQs but these have been banned in many places now.
Once everyone has arrived, some speeches might be made before the party commences. Food and drink are consumed by everyone, and there are games played or dancing to music. The combination of food and drink, and the beautiful location bring out the party animal in everyone. Just remember to be considerate of others around you. If you are new to the company, try to get to know your new colleagues better. This is a great opportunity, as the alcohol and occasion will allow them to relax their guard and open up more socially.
As the party is about to finish, there is time for one last look at the cherry blossoms (見納め Miosame). Then, everyone pitches in to do the cleaning (片付け Katazuke). You should leave the place exactly as you found it. It is considered very bad manners to leave all your trash around so Japanese people try their best to pick up everything they brought with them.
Afterwards, some of the group will go home while other might head off for more partying (二次会 Nijikai). If you are asked to go by your new colleagues, it is expected you will accept. Enjoy yourself but remember that too much drink will result in a hangover (二日酔い Futsukayoi) the next day!