“APRIL is the cruelest month…” once wrote British/American poet T.S. Eliot. Clearly Eliot never experienced April in Japan! With the advent of Spring, April saw a very special event that is the highlight of the year for many Japanese. This month, I experienced my first Hanami.
Hanami (花見), or “flower viewing” is first recorded way back in the Nara Period, (710-794 AD), but it wasn’t until the Heian Period that “flower viewing” was reserved for a single bloom, the Sakura (桜 – cherry blossom). This exclusivity was thanks to a novel, written in the Heian Period by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu called The Tale of Genji (源氏物語 Genji Monogatari). Considered the world’s first novel, this tale of heartbreak firmly linked the word ‘Hanami’ to ‘cherry blossom’ and when the Emperor Saga decreed that flower viewing must be undertaken with an abundance of sake and food, the practice really took hold!
Evening Banquet for Cherry-blossom Viewing at the Rokujô Palace (Rokujô gosho hanami no yûen), Kunisada (1855)
Today, Hanami is observed with as much anticipation and excitement as it was in the Heian Period. So much so in fact, Japanese television and radio update the Spring hungry throngs with a blossom forecast (桜前線 sakura-zensen), ensuring everyone is able to get in on the fun during the short life of this beautiful blossom. In fact, it’s the very fact that sakura has such a short ‘life span’ that spurns on this frenzy to witness and celebrate such a short, yet delicate moment.
Sukura in Shibuya
This appreciation of forlorn beauty is at the very heart of Japanese culture. Countless paintings, poems and of course, manga and anime (Makoto Shinkai’s “5 Centimeters per Second” especially so) have been dedicated to the nuances of this tragic, yet beautiful event. So, with a date fixed and the forecast looking good, I ready myself for a Sunday dedicated to watching petals fall in Inokashira Park.
What I first witnessed was nothing like I’d imagined. The usually sedate thoroughfare of Inokashira Park, populated by walkers and modest tradespeople selling their wares was replaced by, what I can only describe as an epic music festival…without the music. Thousands of Tokyoites had successfully conquered the park, laid claim to the floor with the help of gigantic, blue tarpaulins and shipped in enough beer in to satisfy a small, British town (we do like our beer)!
Hanami starter kit!
My particular group had staked its claim, laid a veritable feast of convenience store delicacies and filled the air with the cracking open of beer cans. My first Hanami had started as it was destined to go on, in true Heian fashion! It seemed that the viewing of flowers were far from the minds of my group, with food being greedily consumed, beer joyfully drunk and an atmosphere alive with happy chatter which went on, long into the night (when ‘Hanami’ becomes yozakura (夜桜) “night sakura”).
Looooong into the night!
Hanami soon drew to a close, and as I navigated (well, staggered) my way through the detritus of ‘merry’ party goers, I reflected on what the very first Hanami must have been like, over a thousand years ago. It wasn’t long after the custom began that the saying, “dumplings rather than flowers” (花より団子 hana yori dango) became well known up down the country (basically, food and drink over watching flowers). All in all, nothing much has changed! April may not be the cruelest month, but with Hanami, it’s certainly the month of the cruelest hangover…🤢