Spring in traditional Japan, like many other places and eras, was a time to get outside and enjoy the best blooming nature has to offer. And nature's very best offering, by traditional Japanese standards at least, are the blossoms of the cherry tree. Anywhere these blooms are particularly prevalent would be an ideal place for old time-y Japanese to gather, picnic and enjoy the show of beauty put on my nature. And over the years that traditional appreciation and appreciation of tradition hasn't changed. In spring you'll still see many modern Japanese folks gathered to socialise under a canopy of pink and white blossoms.
In fact the Japanese hold so much store in this change of the season that between February and May there's a special addition to the weather forecast called the sakurazensen, which literally means 'the cherry blossom front', and lets everyone know how the blooms are progressing up the country.
The proper name for what Westerners have come to call 'Cherry Blossom Viewing Parties', is Hanami. The name actually encompasses viewing of all sorts of flowers, but it's most often used in reference to blossoms of the Japanese Flowering Cherry Tree or ume blossoms, also known as Chinese Plums and Japanese Apricots.
Ume are a pretty consistent bunch, all of them five petalled and ranging in shade from palest pink to white, but the Japanese Flowering Cherries come in over 200 different varieties. So if you're wondering what the blooms improving the view along your own street are this spring, then if they don't have five petals they're probably a kind of cherry blossom. Even in Ancient Japan only true connoisseurs could name them all.
Apart from getting out into the fresh air after the winter and enjoying one of nature's nicest shows, hosting a cherry blossom party is a good way to get your friends together for a slightly different gathering than the usual BBQ. First of all there are specific nibbles served, along with a generally generous amount of food and drink. Sake, and or plum wine, are the sips of choice, either hot or cold, depending on the weather, and people prepare dango and include them in bento for easy transportation.
Dango are small Japanese dumplings made from rice flour, served on skewers in threes or fours. For hanami, special versions are prepared in three colours, with one of each colour on each stick. Pink, made of azuki bean paste, white, made with egg and green made with green tea powder. Bento are boxes of food – like lunch boxes with subdivided sections containing some or all of the key ingredients for a meal: a few pieces of sushi, sticky rice, salad, sashimi, something fried, something pickled and a main of sorts.
To ensure the greatest success of your own hanami you need to worry about the blossoms as well as what you're going to serve, so check in with your local plant nursery if you don't live in a country where there's a cherry blossom forecast. Blossom season is as brief as two or three weeks so you need to scope out a good viewing position as soon as you start to see those pretty petals bursting. Once you know the blossoms are on their way send out your floral themed invites quick smart. This is not a time for long engagements.
Bentos are an easy thing to prepare, but if you don't have easy access to lots of lunch boxes, you can always serve everything on separate plates.
If you want to be very traditional you might want to ask your guests to muse on their surrounds and compose an impromptu haiki on the fleeting quality of life. But if your interest in Japanese culture is more up to date you might want to suggest some karaoke.
FYI if you have your hanami at night it's called a yozakura.