When my Japanese students first invited me to Hanami They added that it means “look flowers”. I couldn’t think of a less exciting way to spend my Saturday afternoon and seriously considered telling them I'd be busy clipping my toenails that day. I could, however, tell by the look on their faces that the decision had been made without my consent and that I’d be spending my sunny Saturday afternoon “flower looking".
I’ve since learned that hanami means more than “flower looking”. First off, it arrives in early spring (usually the end of March and early April) and it announces the end to the long, dreary, cold Japanese winter.
Now, being a Newfoundlander, you would think I’m an expert in perpetual winter, but I’d take a Newfoundland winter over a Japanese one any time. Why? Well, because although the thermometer will tell you different, Japanese winters are colder. It may be minus 10 at home but you can curl up in a recliner with a good book and listen to the wind howl outside and try to forget about it.
In Japan, it may only be 5 degrees outside and you can stay inside (forget about the recliner- they don’t have them here) curl up under heavy layers of quilts, listen to the wind blow through your house and watch your breath curl up in rings. There is no central heating in Japan so if it’s 5 degrees outside it’s usually about 10 degrees inside. As a result, a Japanese winter means you are always cold! You are cold outside, cold in your house, in your car, at work, in the shower and the toilets… well ladies, imagine a 10 degree (or less) toilet seat in the morning!
Sure they have kerosene heaters and anywhere within a 2 meter radius of it is warm. Fortunately in the average Japanese apartment this is most all you have per room. So you’re fine and warm if you never move from that warm spot in front of the heater.
Which brings us back to Hanami! As it is nature’s call to crawl out from in front of the heater, we are compelled to do so with jubilation and celebration. “flower looking” is anything but that. And most of the flowers that actually get looked at are the ones that have fallen in someone’s beer.
Hanami involves groups assembling under the cherry blossom trees to celebrate spring. In the crowded cities, the rookies at the office are usually given “place sitting” as their first assignment. Rookies are conveniently hired just prior to hanami and the boss will send them out in the morning to stake out a good spot and just sit there all day until the party arrives after work. This is good training for the rest of their working life, which will probably be spent staking out a place at their desk waiting for the end of the working day.
So the gang all arrives with copious amounts of food, beer, sake, and in some cases little BBQ sets. They comment on what percent of the flowers are in bloom and usually make no further reference to them as they settle down to party. Within an hour, the revellers below are pinker than the blossoms (This is what happens to many Asians when they drink) and are happy to have officially opened up the spring season with a bang.
As a footnote, Hanami goes on from about late February to April due to the huge diffence of lattitudes in the country and Shimane is in full bloom at the end of March. I know this because they announce it on the hanami report, which follows the weather report every day during the season.