In Japanese, the word "hanami" means "flower viewing," whether the flowers are cherry ("sakura,") plum ("ume,") or some other fruit tree in bloom. Probably the most popular hanami event centers around the blooming of the cherry trees between the end of March and the beginning of April. During hanami time in Japan, people attend and/or host outdoor picnics and parties under the blooms, either during the day or at night. Special paper lanterns hang underneath the trees at night.
The philosophy of a hanami is to savor the beauty of the delicate cherry blossoms during the short window of time that they are available, because their beauty is fleeting. Long walks among the cherry trees invite contemplation and renewal of the spirit. Spring is, after all, a time of rebirth and regeneration.
Hanami is a very important event in Japan; literally thousands of people flock to wherever the cherry trees are blooming, and parties go well into the evening. Visitors to Japan might find it hard to find available hotel rooms during this time if they haven't booked ahead.
In San Francisco, it is an annual tradition for me and my friends to head to Golden Gate Park and have a picnic under the blooming cherry trees. Everyone brings something; it doesn't necessarily have to be Japanese food. This year I packed my bento boxes with various delicacies such as takoyaki, maki sushi, fried squid, seasoned bamboo shoots, dango, and sakuramochi. Sakuramochi - literally, "cherry blossom mochi," is a traditional hanami sweet of red bean paste, mochi, and a salted cherry leaf. I also packed sake and Japanese beer. Other people brought Korean food and Chinese food, so it was a multicultural affair. There was even a bottle of prosecco!
It was a wonderful day; not too hot, not too cold. We all enjoyed one another's company and ate and drank, and laid on the blankets underneath the blossoms, watching them float in the wind like delicate pink flakes of snow. It is part of the experience for the blossoms to fall into your food and drink; they are edible. The Japanese preserve the blossoms in salt, press them into sweets, or just eat them raw.
Cherry blossoms are all over San Francisco right now, and probably just beginning to bud elsewhere. Why not gather together family and friends and have a picnic under the blossoms?
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(Images: Kathryn Hill)