It’s almost that time of year again folks. The hanami season is fast approaching. Once again friends old and new will congregate in nearby parks to enjoy the beautiful blossoming of this year’s Sakura (cherry blossom) trees.
This delightful part of Japanese customs and traditions goes all the way back to the country’s feudal warlords of the 16th century.
Thankfully, you won’t need to stain your katana to enjoy a good Hanami party these days.
However, as with any party, it is not the event itself, but the people that make it the great event it is. Of course, having plenty of good food and drink to hand also helps.
If you’ve just recently moved to Japan, or if you are just visiting here sometime in April then there are few better ways to get to know your Japanese friends a bit better than by partaking in a Hanami party.
But don’t forget, it’s important that you make a positive impression at the party by bringing along the appropriate foods and drinks to share.
I’ll probably cover some Hanami recipes in a later blog, but for the time being, let’s focus today on our drinking options.
What drinks best compliment the food and the mood of a Japanese hanami party?
Here’s my top 5 drinks to make your hanami the most memorable.
1) Asahi Super Dry
Photo : MIKI Yoshihito on FlickrJapan’s favourite beer for Japan’s favourite annual party time. Asahi has its detractors, between those who prefer the slightly lighter Kirin Ichiban or that great staple of pretention the over-priced and over-rated Yebisu. Nonetheless, Asahi Super Dry remains the number one. It’s easy to drink, its freely available and it’s also very reasonably priced, with a “tall one” setting you back only around 200 yen from the convenience store. Perhaps I am a little biased in my love of Super Dry though. It is, after all the first drink I sampled shortly after my first arrival in Japan.
Believe me when I say, after an arduous, uncomfortable 13 hour flight from London Heathrow, undoubtedly the worst airport I have ever had the misfortune to transit through in all my travelling days, nothing in this world tastes sweeter or provides greater refreshment than a smooth cold Asahi Super Dry served in one of those frosted glasses Japanese Izakaya are so famous for!
Photo : madichan on FlickrWhilst those who aren’t beer fans may often label the likes of Asahi Super Dry as being “just a beer, and beers are all the same”, this same accusation certainly cannot be levelled at Umeshu. Umeshu is as Japanese as kimonos, katanas and even the Sakura trees themselves. Made from the finest Japanese plums, and usually fermented in sugar over a period of 2 or 3 years, this is a very sweet, very flavourful drink that is unlike any other you may have experienced.
Although it is, in my opinion, best enjoyed over ice, umeshu can also be enjoyed with soda as a pleasant cocktail. Also, for those of you who are more calorie conscious or perhaps those who don’t care for alcohol, Japanese drinks manufacturer Choya has an alcohol-free, sugar free variant of umeshu that is available from most good supermarkets and convenience stores. Its sweet taste, syrupy texture, and light, easy drinkability make it a popular choice with the ladies too.
Photo : chinnian on FlickrFor an outdoor party like a hanami event, portability is an important issue to consider in your drinking choices. With is canned, ready-blended presentation, these distinctly Japanese fruit and alcohol cocktails are prime candidates for your hanami drink of choice. If the old adage that “variety is the spice of life” is indeed accurate, then chu-hi drinks have this well and truly covered. There are literally dozens of different options for your chu-hi choice. From the old staples of lemon, apple and grapefruit to the more unusual blood orange, strawberry and lime. Perhaps the title for top of the tree for unconventional drink flavours however must go the kiwi fruit flavoured chu-hi I tried from my local Family Mart convenience store a while back. Whilst it was unquestionably delicious, I have no idea what flavour they were going for, but it certainly wasn’t kiwi!
4) Suntory Highball
Photo : Yusuke Kawasaki on FlickrMaybe you’re one of those people who likes their drinks with a bit of a kick, and a higher alcohol content to boot. Well, as far as kickback and excessive alcohol content are concerned, the Suntory highball has the potential to deliver a real knock-out punch. Just be careful, at 9% alcohol by volume, I am not just speaking figuratively here, these things can put you on the floor if you drink them too quickly. Back in Scotland, this would probably have been called a whisky and soda, and indeed the whisky flavour is very powerful, perhaps overpoweringly so. Overall the Suntory highball is not an unpleasant little tipple of choice, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is not a seasoned whisky drinker.
5) Nihon Shu
Photo : tokyofoodcast on FlickrMore commonly known as Sake in the western world, Nihon Shu is perhaps Japan’s best known indigenous drink internationally. This rice wine is note for its strong flavour, with a little more potency than standard red or white wines, clocking in at an average of around 18-20% alcohol by volume. The warm sensation one feels at the back of their throat upon drinking nihon shu is certainly more reminiscent of a malt whisky than it is of a conventional wine. With a flavour all of its own, and a unique place in Japanese drinking culture, nihon shu may be the drink to turn to as the spring afternoon gives way to a more chilly evening. Contrary to popular belief, this is not just a winter drink.
So, that’s it, my own personal top 5 of the drinks to keep your hanami party rocking well into the evening. As always, please do drink responsibly. Remember, when you start to see three sake cups in your hand instead of just one, that’s usually when it’s time to stop!