Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: March-April
Where Celebrated: Japan
Symbols and Customs: Cherry Blossom, Cherry Dance
Hana means “flower” in Japanese, and hanami means “flower viewing.” While the word for “cherry blossom” is sakura, the appreciation of the cherry blossom is so widespread in Japan that hanami has come to refer specifically to cherry blossoms. The pink-and-white blooms last for about two weeks in March-April, and during that time people swarm to Japan's public parks to picnic, play games, tell stories, and dance beneath the canopy of flowers. Companies even book certain places in advance so they can have hanami parties for their employees.
In Tokyo's Ueno Park—one of the most noted cherry blossom viewing places— the traditional way of viewing the cherry blossoms was an elaborate affair. Family groups would arrive in the morning and set up their quarters for the day, spreading mats and red blankets on the ground under the blossoming trees and hanging striped curtains bearing the family crest to screen off the area. Some of the groups stretched ropes from tree to tree and hung brightly colored kimonos over the line to serve as curtains. These closed-off areas served as a combination dining room and stage. After feasting, the groups visited with their neighbors or joined in the dancing and singing under the trees. Young girls would try to outdo each other by putting on their best holiday kimonos and parading around the park.
Today, people talk constantly during the brief blooming season about where the best cherry blossoms can be seen, the different varieties, and where trees of particular interest—because of their age, size, or number—can be found. Throughout the month of April, trains and buses are crowded with people on their way to see the cherry blossoms. While some prefer to see an isolated tree in a remote mountain setting, others want to see hundreds of trees blooming together in a public park. Blossoms can also be seen in temple gardens, in pastures, and along riverbanks. The most famous viewing place is Yoshinoyama near Nara in the west of Japan, where it is said that a thousand trees can be seen at a glance and where young children holding cherry blossoms walk in procession through the main streets.
Since ancient times people in all parts of the world have honored the changing of the seasons. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.
The cherry blossom viewing season usually starts at the end of March in Kyushu, in early April in the Tokyo area, and in late April in northern Japan.
The Japanese have always thought of the sakura or cherry blossom as a symbol for their nation. Poets and artists have celebrated it in their work, and it is the one flower that embodies perfection. Samurai warriors regarded the way the cherry blossom falls at the peak of its beauty as a symbol of grace in death and of the samurai way of life, since so many of them died young. Modern-day Japanese soldiers have often compared their few brief hours of glory in combat to those of the short-lived blossom. The cherry blossom is also an important symbol in the Buddhist faith, which stresses the impermanence of life.
The real name for this dance is the Miyako Odori or “Dance of the Capital,” but because it is performed during the cherry blossom season, it has become known as the Cherry Dance outside Japan. In Tokyo, Osaka, and other places where there are geisha—women trained as dancers, singers, and companions for men—there is a Cherry Dance at this time of year.
The famous Cherry Dance in Kyoto is held during the month of April, and the best available artists and musicians take part in the performance. The opening scene, lit by lanterns, is especially beautiful, as are the geisha dances executed with a series of graceful movements done to the accompaniment of flutes and drums.
Japan National Tourism Organization
Japan National Tourism Organization
1 Grand Central Pl.
60 E. 42nd St. Ste. 448
New York, NY 10165
Phone: 212-757-5640; Fax: 212-307-6754
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