Spring is the season for new life, new beginnings. As the Japanese fiscal year starts, it is also the season for taking stock. One event that takes place now and asks Japanese to pause and take stock - defines the Japanese psyche more than any other – the springtime delight of hanami.
Literally meaning 'flower viewing', hanami is the Japanese traditional custom of reflecting on the ephemeral beauty of flowers – in this case – cherry or plum blossoms.
The first literary mention of hanami comes from the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu in the early 11th century. The practice of cherry blossom viewing started in the Imperial Court as a refined and elegant way to reflect on the new season, new beginnings and the transient nature of beauty and life. The full bloom of cherry blossoms last only a short time - sometimes less than a week - so they are the perfect metaphor for the fleeting nature of life itself.
Traditionally, poetry was seen as a subtle and sophisticated response to viewing the blossoms and Japanese literature is permeated with restrained and elegant poems on the coming of Spring and cherry blossom season. Here is one, by the poet Basho (1644-1694), that I love:
Spring night, cherry – blossom dawn.
These elegant traditions spread from the Imperial Court to ordinary people at the beginning of the 17th century. Now, hanami is an integral part of Japanese life with different generations responding in different ways. The older generations will often stroll down avenues lined with plum blossoms, in traditional dress, and ponder the transient nature of life – a bitter sweet nostalgia – that suffuses their thoughts. I often hear the older people softly singing traditional songs under their breathe as they stroll under the blossoms.
Younger people will get together and have party picnics under cherry blossoms – drinking copious amounts of alcohol, eating traditional hanami food and laughing together – in a way – expressing the transient nature of life by seizing it with both hands!
Each year, hanami begins on the subtropical islands of Okinawa and weather forecasters report on the opening on the blossoms as they sweep across the country in much the same way as they report the weather.
This year, once again, coronavirus will disrupt this most beautiful and essential of cultural traditions. As with last year, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is likely to close the public parks where hanami parties are usually held. I have been impressed with the philosophical responses of my friends, who say, “It can’t be helped.”
Once again, we will have to find other ways to appreciate the beauty of the cherry blossoms and take a moment to reflect on the transient nature of life.
Cherry blossoms – lights of years past. -Basho
Guest author, Takashi Sakai, is born, bred and resident in Tokyo. Takashi is a self-confessed nerd who loves anime, sports and 80s pop music. Takashi specialises in teaching English to students of all ages and has particular expertise in English/Japanese translation of urban language and slang.