Hanami Spring Festival is all Japan occasion

By David Higgins

Cherry blossoms in mainland are white and pale pink in contrast to the pink and red variety found in Okinawa. The blossoms are also bigger and fall after only a few days.

Surely, you have heard the buzzword around Okinawa that is ‘Hanami.’  Most likely, you have already been a festive participant in these events since the beginning of the new year.  ‘Hanami’ refers to a traditional festival that is one of Japan’s most ancient, dating back to the 8th century.  It takes place during February and March throughout most of Japan but in Okinawa, the party can start as early as January.

Hanami in mainland Japan is a big thing with thousands of people crowding parks for the occasion.

Hanami‘ literally means ‘flower viewing‘ and is a celebration of the arrival of the fragile pink and white ‘sakura,‘ or cherry blossoms that erupt in contrast to the twisted tree branches of the cherry trees they are briefly clustered upon.  Quickly after blooming, the sakura will drop lightly to rest on the walkways, streets and paths, laying a magical blanket across our island cities and towns and eventually, the rest of Japan.

The cherry blossoms are the first to bloom after the cold wet winter months, creating expansive landscapes of infinite varieties of pink and white; a welcome sight after the grey months of winter.  They are appreciated for their singular beauty, fragile nature and short lifespan as well as their ability to awaken the senses in a surreal veil of color and poetry, reminding us of the value of natures’ beauty.  Traditionally, cherry blossoms have been considered an analogy for our own short lives; a reminder to live life to its fullest and appreciate each special moment.

Cherry trees require a combination of hot and cold weather to awaken the blossoming of the dark pink flowers that flow like a wave from the north to south of the Okinawa archipelago.  As is typical of Okinawa, Hanami is celebrated a bit differently from the mainland.  In Japan, the traditional trees blossom with pale pink and white flowers of the Someiyoshino cherry tree while in Okinawa the most prominent trees found in the south are the of Kanhizakura (Taiwan cherry) blossoms.  The Kanhizakura tree blossoms with a heartier pink blossom and the petals tend to stay on the tree much longer.  These trees do not always bloom at the same pace as the others around them.  One could say they bloom to the beat of their own taiko drum.

If you are interested in following the path of the awakening cherry blossoms across Okinawa and Japan, a great place to begin would be in Yanbaru, at the most northern point of Okinawa.  From Yanbaru, you can head south towards Motobu Town, Nakijin Village and then Nago City to see some of the most beautiful displays.  In Yanbaru, you can wander freely through the winding streets and paths lined with rows of blossoming cherry trees that create a canopy from the early spring wind and rain. You can peer down from Yaedake to see the great wave of blossoms roll out along the ridges of the mountain slopes.

While here, you mustn’t miss the Nakijin Gusuku Sakura Festival which is held at the ruins of Nakijin Castle. This is a newer festival but the unique location has made it a popular draw for locals and visitors alike. What adds to the unique vista is that during the evening, the cherry trees are illuminated in a manner that emphasizes the resilient energy of nature against a backdrop of the eerie architecture of history.

If a more ‘festive’ atmosphere is what you are looking for in your Hanami experience, the south harbors a variety of subtropical festivals involving costume parades, traditional Eisa dancing and taiko drum performances.  During this time, do not pass up the opportunity to gather with friends, family, colleagues or a special someone for a picnic along the riverbanks or in a park where you can spread out your tarp and be enveloped by the beauty of the blossoming trees.  Food and adult beverages abound to help liven the mood and warm the spirit while the spring air is still cool.  Be sure to pick up some rice cakes called ‘sakura mochi’ which are made especially for Hanami parties.  They contain red bean paste, and are wrapped in a leaf from a cherry tree.

If your taste for the Hanami experience is still not satiated after a north to south tour of Okinawa, fear not, as the trees are blossoming on the mainland from south to north well into the month of May.  If your hunger for festivals celebrated around the natural displays of seasonal change continues, ‘Momijigari‘, the celebration of the changing of autumn leaves is just around the corner.  Until then, stay conscious of the spirit of the Hanami festivals by living life to it’s fullest and welcoming all of life’s special moments as they unfurl.