One of the great things about Japan is that it has 4 distinct seasons and they celebrated in their own special way. To be in Japan for a year is great because you can experience the full range of festivals, foods and activities. Moreover, Japan runs from north to south so even if you are only there for a short time, you can pick your activity and then find the right season. You can potentially ski and surf on the same day!
Springtime in Japan is many people’s favourite because the weather is great, the days are getting longer and it is a great time for being outdoors. And what is top of the list of things to do outdoors, it has to be Hanami or flower viewing.
What’s being celebrated
Hanami translates to ‘Flower Viewing’, so what is the big deal and what makes it so special? Well firstly it isn’t any flowers, it is the Cherry tree blossom, it appears on the trees very briefly in Springtime and then it is gone. And there’s lies at least part of the attraction to the nation. It is seen as so beautiful and yet so fleeting like the path of a samurai warrior. Well, that is what the guide books will tell you but for most people it is just a fantastic way to enjoy nature and ‘let your hair down’. Hanami means grabbing your picnic gear, some food and of course lots of your favourite drink and heading down to the nearest park. Optional extras are Karaoke set, dancing shoes and even music mixing decks.
Such is the importance of Hanami, news programmes and newspapers announce where in the country the cherry blossom is currently blooming. Because of the geography of the country, you can plot the advance of the blossom from south to north, the so called Hanami ‘front line’.
Planning is the Key
But you had better get there early. In the UK, we have an old joke about holidays in Spain and making sure you get up early as the tourists from Germany will be the first (most efficient) at reserving the best seats by the pool. In Japan, there is similarly great planning and precision timing when it comes Hanami. Going with friends is of course the most fun, so if you are designated ‘Early bird’, you must be there before the crowds with your large mat or sheet to reserve the space. Once that chore is complete, you can just enjoy the day because others in your circle will have been assigned other tasks even down to designation of which course’s food to bring. It may beforehand seem really over the top to do so much planning but it does really pay off. If you are participating with a Japanese family, this is the routine they are accustomed to, but more than that it just makes good sense. Once you are there you will have a fantastic time. If the park is big enough, as the day goes on, the music, singing and dancing build up and by nightfall, there is a real party atmosphere. And no drunken brawls as you might have in other parts of the world!
Japan loves its festivals or ‘Matsuri’ in local parlance. Like many of its traditions, most Matsuri date back hundreds of years and are so prevalent that pretty much wherever you are in Japan there will be a local festival near you. One of the biggest in Tokyo is the Sanja Matsuri where, like many other festivals, Omikoshi (see photo below) are carried by dozens of people through the streets. It has courted controversy in recent years as people have climbed on to the Omikoshi, which is in contravention of the strict (if not immediately obvious) rules of Omikoshi.
Sanja Matsuri is huge, and as with the Hanami, planning is the key and even then the mass of the crowds attending may be overwhelming. As I have stated, Matsuri big and small happen everywhere in Spring, so it may be better to check out local Matsuri for a friendlier and more intimate experience. Details will be in your prefecture or ward’s English web pages or just ask around with neighbours, building concierge or someone in your local community.