Hanami — Blossom Viewing

Blossom viewing is a cultural event in Japan. Hanami, literally “to see flowers,” is the word for this traditional custom that dates back to the 8th century. Hanami takes place as a picnic under the branches, or a stroll among the trees. Sweet treats and sake, colorful kimonos, and an opportunity to compose and share poems are all part of hanami. When I lived in Japan, the evening news announced the opening of the cherry blossoms from Okinawa in the South of Japan to Hokkaido in the North. Families and friends planned their weekends to visit their favorite cherry blossom viewing sites.

© "Amidst the Beauties of Springtime – Dwarf Cherry Trees at Omuro Gosho Temple" 1904 / Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

© "Amidst the Beauties of Springtime – Dwarf Cherry Trees at Omuro Gosho Temple" 1904 / Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Hanami is not only for daytime viewing, but temples and gardens have lanterns to light the cherry trees during special evening hours. In Kyushu, there is a traditional Japanese garden with over 2,000 cherry trees. In Maruyama Park in Kyoto, over 800 trees are illuminated during the short season of the blossoms, and crowds gather. Hanami is big business.

Picture courtesy of Mifuneyama Kankō Hotel, Kyushu

Picture courtesy of Mifuneyama Kankō Hotel, Kyushu

Usually hanami refers to cherry blossoms, but originally it was plum blossoms that were harbingers of spring. In Kyoto, I would see plum trees in bloom in early February, when there was still a dusting of snow on the branches. The striking visual similarity between snowflakes and flower petals has been a favorite subject for Japanese poets. In the earliest Japanese poetry collection, the Manyoshu, this poem was composed at a plum-blossom viewing banquet at the home of Otomo Tabito in 730 CE:

In my garden fall the plum-blossoms—
      Are they indeed snow-flakes
Whirling from the sky?

                                    —the Host

And later in the same collection:

Yonder in the plum tree
Fluttering from branch to branch
The warbler sings
And white on his wings falls
Airy snow. 

                                  —Author unknown

In Japanese poetry, blossoms evoke the ephemeral nature of life, the fact that everything we love in this world is impermanent — the warbler’s song, the moon’s reflection in water, the touch of a lover. However, in our realization of this transience, we love all the more. For the Japanese, beauty is never very far from melancholy, and one of my favorite books is Beauty and Sadness, by Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. In the book, the writer Oki Toshio meets a lover from his past, Otoko Ueno. She is now a well-known, but reclusive artist, living with her protégée, who is fiercely jealous of her teacher’s old lover. It’s not the storyline in Kawabata’s books that won him the Nobel prize, but the subtlety of emotions. It’s as if the reader were gazing into the reflection in a drop of sweat on her lover’s neck — we are that close physically to complex emotional states.

In the traditional world of Noh Theater, often one emotion is the focus of a play and, during the performance, that emotion builds to a final delirium of expression. While I was training in the Noh Theater, I danced a role from the Noh play Sakuragawa, Cherry Blossom River, in which a mother, having lost her only son, named Cherry Blossom Boy, roams the countryside to find him. She comes upon the Cherry Blossom River, where, in her crazed grief, and moved by the falling blossoms, she dances. In the dance, she uses a bamboo scoop to lift the fallen blossoms from the river, as if to raise her drowned son’s body. She dances faster and faster, while the deep voices of the chorus, the percussive beat of the drums, and shrill calls of the high-pitched Noh flute come together with intense fervor to express her unimaginable loss. The cherry blossoms signify the transient nature of life, yet a mother’s love for her child never fades.

Now, as an orchardist, I check the daily weather reports during this time of the year. Tender blossoms are susceptible to damage from frost, and the wildly fluctuating temperatures we’ve been having in recent years raise my anxiety. High temperatures cause flower buds to break dormancy and begin to swell. Frigid temperatures can be fatal for these tender buds. Last year, all over New England, farms lost their peach crop, and many orchards lost up to 90 percent of their apple crop. Even if the buds open, the severe cold can affect the fruit set and quality. It’s a big unknown, and we are a long way from fruit set. 

Weather can also wreak havoc with cherry blossoms. A rainstorm with wind close to peak blossom time will leave wet petals plastered to the branches, trunk, and ground, and the hanami tourists will change their plans. I’ve seen a rainstorm shred the petals in our orchard; but, by then, the bees had already pollinated, and the tiny applets grew.

Viable blossoms are a cause for celebration both for their beauty and for the fruit we can anticipate. If we have a full blossom set I’m going to host a hanami — kimonos optional—with  hot sake, tasty morsels, and poetry!