An old Japanese word for spring is “sakura-doki” or cherry blossom time — an indication of the age-old Japanese passion for cherry blossoms and the special delight felt in viewing them at hana-mi (flower-viewing) parties each springs.
In addition to the lavish high-society hana-mi parties attended by thousands of guests including the imperial family, the Prime Minister and his cabinet, celebrities, and members of the diplomatic corps, there are more plebeian parties at which families, neighbors, or coworkers supplied with food, drink, and groundcloths stake out claims under the blossoming cherry trees, perhaps singing along to taped accompaniment as the evening progresses in a revelry of drinking, singing, and dancing.
At the more popular sites, Tokyo’s Ueno Park for instance, advance parties begin arriving a full day ahead to lay claim to good locations, and territorial disputes sometimes flare up among the more aggressive strategists.
The hanami tradition is a long one, originating in the Heian period when hanami parties were held at court. In 1598, Toyotomi Hideyoshi held a hanami party at Kyoto’s Daigoji temple which is remembered as the most opulent ever. It was not until the Edo period that hanami parties spread to the common-folk, but such parties are depicted in the famous “36 Views of Mt. Fuji” series of woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai.
Among Japans famous hanami sites, the most highly regarded is Mt Yoshino in Nara prefecture. Known as the mountain with 1,000 cherry trees, Mt. Yoshino is graced from top to bottom with cherry trees so that the entire mountain seems to blossom in spring. Kyoto’s Arashiyama and Ibaraki Prefecture’s Sakuragawa (made famous by a popular poem of the same name by Zeami) also draw large numbers of hanami enthusiasts.