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Field Guide to Japan: Hanami Fun Facts!

Spring has sprung. And in Japan, that means it is time again to contemplate mono no aware, the ephemeral and slightly melancholy nature of being alive. Apparently, this is best achieved through the age-old tradition of sitting on blue polytarps, passing around child-sized bottles of sake (by which I mean the size of a human child, not a size fit for one), and generally making as much of an ass of yourself as possible in a crowded public park. In a word: fantastic.

Cherry blossoms (sakura) are charged with meaning. Their fragile and fleeting bloom has been compared to a woman’s beauty, blossoming for a short period before withering into old age. The fighting men of Japan – soldiers, samurai and gangsters – often used them as a symbol of a life that was short but magnificent. Because the Japanese school year begins in April, the sakura are also seen as a sign of beginning, signaling a new stage in life. Of course, most of this ancient symbolism has been lost in the pursuit of a really excellent party, but what the hey.

To help prepare for the deeper appreciation of this perennial ritual – or maybe just to feed you some useless trivia to impress your friends with while waiting for your turn at the enormous sake bottle – here are five fun facts about hanami (cherry blossom viewing). Enjoy!

1. When and how this whole hanami thing got started is a mystery, but it has been going on for a long time. Some say it started in the Nara period (710-784), due to the encroaching influence of the Chinese Tang Dynasty and its established culture of flower appreciation. Others argue it is a Japan-original, with 3rd century hanami parties being mentioned in the Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan). Either way, plum blossoms and wisteria were originally the flowers of note, with nobody giving a hoot about sakura. However, like pretty much everything else in traditional Japanese culture, this all changed with the publication of The Tale of Genji, which included a sakura-hanami party scene. From then on, the word came to be exclusively associated with parties under cherry blossoms.

2. Whether or not hanami parties are indigenous to Japan, sakura trees sure aren’t. They were imported to Japan from the Himalayas and have been artificially hybridized for centuries, resulting in around 305 distinct varieties. Considered the most beautiful sakura and genetically grafted so that all of its flowers bloom at the same time, the somei yoshino was perfected towards the end of the Edo period. And yes, although they are called "cherry blossoms" in English, actual cherries come from an entirely different species of tree, so don’t get your hopes up for free fruit.

3. To help manage the big sake bottles, people are often seen drinking from masu, a square wooden box-shaped cup usually with some design etched in it. Masu were originally a standardized measuring cup for counting rice, said to contain exactly enough rice to feed a working man for one day. 365 masu added up to a koku, enough rice to feed someone for a year; this was used as a measure of wealth in feudal Japan.

4. Nowadays, the focus of the event has changed, which resulted in the phrase hana yori dango. It means being more interested in the tasty and sweet foods of hanami parties (dango) rather than wasting time staring at the flowers (hana) and contemplating mono no aware. Personally, I think this would be better rendered as hana yori sake, but maybe that’s just me.

5. If you’re undecided as to where to hold your hanami party this year, Mt. Yoshino in Nara prefecture is considered to be the most beautiful place in all of Japan for sakura. More than 100,000 sakura trees are planted in sequential groves along the mountain, allowing for staggered hanami as the trees slowly bloom. Legendary poet Matsuo Basho was so struck by the numinous beauty of Mt. Yoshino in bloom that he refused to compose his customary haiku during his visit, saying that a human being could never properly capture it in words. Or maybe he was just too drunk, swept up in the true spirit of hanami.