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Hanami (花見, lit. "flower viewing") is the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers, "flower" in this case almost always meaning cherry blossoms ("sakura") or (less often) plum blossoms ("ume"). From the end of March to early May, sakura bloom all over Japan, and around the first of February on the island of Okinawa. The blossom forecast (桜前線 sakura-zensen , literally cherry blossom front) is announced each year by the weather bureau, and is watched carefully by those planning hanami as the blossoms only last a week or two. In modern-day Japan, hanami mostly consists of having an outdoor party beneath the sakura during daytime or at night. In some contexts the Sino-Japanese term kan'ō (観桜, view-cherry) is used instead, particularly for festivals. Hanami at night is called yozakura (夜桜, literally night sakura). In many places such as Ueno Park temporary paper lanterns are hung for the purpose of yozakura. On the island of Okinawa, decorative electric lanterns are hung in the trees for evening enjoyment, such as on the trees ascending Mt. Yae, near Motobu Town, or at the Nakijin Castle.
A more ancient form of hanami also exists in Japan, which is enjoying the plum blossoms (梅 ume) instead, which is narrowly referred to as umemi (梅見, plum-viewing). This kind of hanami is popular among older people, because they are more calm than the sakura parties, which usually involve younger people and can sometimes be very crowded and noisy.
The practice of hanami is many centuries old. The custom is said to have started during the Nara Period (710–794) when it was ume blossoms that people admired in the beginning. But by the Heian Period (794–1185), sakura came to attract more attention and hanami was synonymous with sakura. From then on, in both waka and haiku, "flowers" meant "sakura."
Hanami was first used as a term analogous to cherry blossom viewing in the Heian era novel Tale of Genji. Although a wisteria viewing party was also described, the terms "hanami" and "flower party" were subsequently used only in reference to cherry blossom viewing.
Sakura originally was used to divine that year's harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. People believed in kami inside the trees and made offerings. Afterwards, they partook of the offering with sake.
Emperor Saga of the Heian Period adopted this practice, and held flower-viewing parties with sake and feasts underneath the blossoming boughs of sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Poems would be written praising the delicate flowers, which were seen as a metaphor for life itself, luminous and beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral. This was said to be the origin of hanami in Japan.
The custom was originally limited to the elite of the Imperial Court, but soon spread to samurai society and, by the Edo period, to the common people as well. Tokugawa Yoshimune planted areas of cherry blossom trees to encourage this. Under the sakura trees, people had lunch and drank sake in cheerful feasts.
The teasing proverb dumplings rather than flowers (花より団子 hana yori dango ) hints at the real priorities for most cherry blossom viewers, meaning that people are more interested in the food and drinks accompanying a hanami party than actually viewing the flowers themselves.
Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees! is a popular saying about hanami, after the opening sentence of the 1925 short story "Under the Cherry Trees" by Motojirō Kajii.
The Japanese people continue the tradition of hanami, gathering in great numbers wherever the flowering trees are found. Thousands of people fill the parks to hold feasts under the flowering trees, and sometimes these parties go on until late at night. In more than half of Japan, the cherry blossoming days come at the same time of the beginning of school and work after vacation, and so welcoming parties are often opened with hanami. Usually, people go to the parks to keep the best places to celebrate hanami with friends, family, and company coworkers many hours or even days before. In cities like Tokyo, it's also common to have celebrations under the sakura at night. Hanami at night is called yozakura (夜桜, literally "night sakura"). In many places such as Ueno Park, temporary paper lanterns are hung to have yozakura.
The cherry blossom front is forecast each year, previously by the Japan Meteorological Agency and now by private agencies, and is watched with attention by those who plan to celebrate hanami because the blossoms last for very little time, usually no more than two weeks. The first cherry blossoms happen in the subtropical southern islands of Okinawa, while on the northern island of Hokkaido, they bloom much later. In most large cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, the cherry blossom season normally takes place around the end of March and the beginning of April. The television and newspapers closely follow this "cherry blossom front", as it slowly moves from South to North.
The hanami celebrations usually involve eating and drinking, and playing and listening music. Some special dishes are prepared and eaten at the occasion, like dango and bento, and it's common for sake to be drunk as part of the festivity.
Hanami festivities have become popular outside of Japan as well, and are now also celebrated in other countries. Smaller hanami celebrations take place in Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines, and China.
In the United States, hanami has also become very popular. In 1912, Japan gave 3,000 sakura trees as a gift to the United States to celebrate the nations' friendship. These trees were planted in Washington, D.C., and another 3,800 trees were donated in 1965. These sakura trees continue to be a popular tourist attraction, and every year, the "National Cherry Blossom Festival" takes place when they bloom in early spring.
In Macon, Georgia, another cherry blossom festival called the "International Cherry Blossom Festival" is celebrated every spring. Macon is known as the "Cherry Blossom Capital of the World", because 300,000 sakura trees grow there.
In Brooklyn, New York, the "Annual Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival" takes place in May, at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. This festivity has been celebrated since 1981, and is one of the Garden's most famous attractions. Similar celebrations are also held in Philadelphia and other places through the United States.
Hanami is also celebrated in several European countries. For example, in Finland people gather to celebrate hanami in Helsinki at Roihuvuori. Local Japanese people and companies have donated 200 cherry trees which are all planted in a single park near Roihuvuori. Those cherry trees usually are blooming in mid-May.
Sakura Matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden http://www.nycgovparks.org/video/170
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