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An Introduction to Hanami

As I write this latest piece from my trusty old work desk, the rays of sunlight bellowing through from my balcony window give my arms a warm glow. I look out over the clear blue sky over Osaka bay and I realize that, for the first time in many months warmer weather will soon be headed my way. It looks as if this seemingly endless winter is finally coming to a close. Soon it will be time to dust off the picnic mats, go shopping for food, drinks and party games, and stock up on the Alka-Seltzer and various other curative agents for my impending hangover.

Yes folks, it’s almost that time of year again. Time for the hanami season to begin.

Photo: mrhayata on Flickr

Translated directly into English “Hanami” (花見) literally means (flower watching). It is a Japanese custom that goes back hundreds of years to the times of Nobugana, Toyotomi and the other great warlords of Japan’s feudal times. In such periods of instability when Japan came so close to being consumed by civil war, hanami provided a rare respite and an outlet for much of life’s pent-up frustrations.

Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr

Today we may no longer face the threat of war on our doorstep, but Japan certainly has no shortage of stressors for its 128 million people.

Photo: Guilhem Vellut on Flickr

Hanami parties give everyone the chance to kick back, relax and remind themselves just why Japan is such a great place to live.

So, what exactly is a hanami party?

Hanami season can begin as early as mid-March and usually runs until sometime in May. This is dependent both on the climate and indeed on where you happen to live in Japan. In spring time across Japan, the legendary “Sakura”, Cherry Blossom Trees, come into full bloom. These magnificient examples of natural beauty give parks and riversides all over Japan a wonderful pink tinge, and provide the perfect backdrop to a relaxing afternoon in the park.

Photo: benjamine scalvenzi on Flickr

In order to view these fine structures at the peak of their bloom, it has long been customary in Japan to prepare lots of food and drinks and gather together with friends and family to relax under the trees, enjoy the view, the fine food, good conversation and refreshing drinks alongside friends, work colleagues and loved ones.

Photo: Ari Helminen on Flickr

Such is the sense of social compartmentalisation in Japan, that one can often find themselves invited to multiple Hanami parties. Japanese people tend to divide their social circle into distinct groups, with these groups seldom overlapping.

Hence, they may attend a hanami with work colleagues one day, with family the next and with friends the next day.

Last year I had the hectic, though undeniably enjoyable schedule of attending 5 different hanamis over a period of 2 weekends.

Photo: C.K. Tse on Flickr

Firstly, there was the obligatory gathering with my girlfriend at the time and her extended family. Then came the raucous, though extremely good natured fun of the hanami with my Japanese colleagues from the school that I was teaching in at that time. Next came a gathering with members of my Japanese language class, followed by an impromptu “Nijikai” (second party) with some people I met at the first party. Finally, I enjoyed one last hanami with the international language exchange group where I sometimes help out.

Photo: kaybee07 on Flickr

Last most parties how much you enjoy yourself depends mostly on the people who are there, how good the food and drink is, and the overall atmosphere. However, in the 9 years since I first came to live in Japan, I can honestly say I have yet to experience a bad hanami.

Photo: ken.h on Flicker

There are a few recurring themes that run through almost all hanamis though. I will now outline a few of those for you.

There is always too much food.

When it comes to home cooking, few people make as much effort, or indeed as much quantity as the Japanese. At a hanami everyone is encouraged to prepare something at home beforehand, and to be sure to bring enough to feed a large group of people. The different foods on offer at a hanami are often indicative of the personalities of the people who made them. Some of my female Japanese friends love nothing better than to carve out beautifully cute rice balls, sushi and other snack treats in the shapes of their favourite Disney and anime characters. Others pride themselves in their baking skills, producing some delicious cup cakes, chocolates and other sweet delights. The guys usually prefer to keep things simple, bringing along the likes of Kara-age (fried chicken), hot dogs, cookies and other simplistic delights. One things for sure, if you’re coming to a hanami, be sure to leave the calorie counter at home.

Photo: Hanabi Bento

Positioning is everything.

Of course amidst all the good food, free-flowing drinks and fascinating conversation, it would seemingly be easy to forget the whole point of the party, which is, afterall to enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms. Not so for most of my Japanese friends though. Such is their desire to secure that ideal spot for viewing, that people will often head to the location very early in the morning, or sometimes even the night before the party to scout out the perfect spot.

Photo: Spiegel on Flickr

The perfect hanami spot will ideally be easy to find, in sunlight and ideally next too or directly under a cherry blossom tree in full bloom. Of course given the amount of food and drink to be consumed, close proximity to toilets and garbage disposal facilities is also an important consideration. Most people prefer to have their hanami in a surburban or urban location too, so that the all important “beer run” doesn’t take too long when supplies run low.

Be prepared to drink a lot, and to see your friends as you’ve never seen them before.

To most outsiders, Japan can seem like a very conservative society. At times, people can seem almost robotic in their adherence to rules and regulations and in their deference to the majority of the larger collective. However, hanamis turn all that conventional logic on its head. That quite little girl who sits next to you silently in the office all week could show you a whole new side to her character after a few drinks, and you will almost certainly be surprised at the way some of your colleagues unwind and open up after a few drinks.

Photo: Jacob Ehnmark on Flickr

In spite of all the stereotypes, hanami showed to me the true nature of Japanese people. They are not the soulless robots of so many stereotypical portrayals. They love to laugh, to eat, drink and be merry just as much as we do.Life in Japan can often be tough, with long hours, cultural misunderstandings and many other issues. However, at times like hanami season, when friends and family can come together, to enjoy nature and to enjoy each other, it all becomes worthwhile.

Hanami reminds me why Japan is my home, and why I love it so.

Photo: Dominic Alves on Flickr

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