Dear Culinary Backstreets, I’m on my way to Tokyo in the next few weeks and wanted to enjoy the cherry blossoms at a typical hanami celebration. Where can I find such a celebration, and what kind of food can I expect and where can I find one?
We can fully understand why you want to partake of a hanami, or cherry blossom viewing party, as most Japanese people do. The ritual has been around for over a thousand years in Japan. Cherry blossoms – sakura – will bloom in lavish displays of wonderful pink magic all over Japan, starting on the southern island of Kyushu at the end of March and moving north to Hokkaido by the end of May. Sakura are a beloved and important symbol in Japanese culture. Weekly and then daily updates inform local populations on the progress of the blooms from initial buds (10 percent, then 20 percent, etc.) to a final full display (mompai!). Their ephemeral splendor lasts only a few short days, and in Japanese culture, they are a visual reminder not only of life’s beauty, but also that human existence is precious and short-lived. One can find sakura as a common theme in painting, poetry, dance and theater. The blossoms show up in everything from traditional Japanese tattoos to popular manga.
Food and drink are essential elements to hanami. Families, groups of friends and co-workers gather daily during the season to celebrate life while sitting under sakura trees planted in public parks, along rivers and in cemeteries. A lovely time to enjoy the sakura by oneself is during the day. Find a tasty looking bento lunch and something to wash it down with and head to Shinjuku Park. There are acres of trees to enjoy and ample room for everyone. On weekends the park is dense with groups toting small hibachi grills, coolers of beer, homemade treats and very often a portable karaoke setup. Another gorgeous viewing spot is Inokashira Park on the outskirts of Tokyo in Kichijoji. There is a very large lake, and one can rent a boat, row out for a bit and view the trees from afar in an idyllic setting.
During sakura season, the real action takes place at night after work. There are large evening hanami in almost every park and large cemetery in Tokyo. People gather in groups of ten, 20 or even 30. One or two of the younger workers in an office is often sent ahead during the afternoon to stake out a prime spot.
Just about anything goes for hanami fare, especially at night. Foodstuffs are purchased anywhere from the local depachika (department store) food halls to convenience stores. Mounds of senbei rice crackers, dried cod, butter peanuts, potato chips and other snacks appear on paper plates. Upscale revelers tote in platters of sushi and grilled skewers of chicken yakitori. The main event, however, is the alcohol. Magnums of sake and coolers of beer are a must. In keeping with the custom of never pouring one’s own sake, people take turns making the rounds of the revelers within their group, making sure that everyone’s paper cup is always full. The mood becomes festive very quickly and many groups are quite pleased to welcome foreigners to their turf. If you stop to say hello and are invited to join, it’s important to remember to take off your shoes before sitting down on the tarp.
Our favorite place for evening hanami is Aoyama Cemetery. We’ve never been able to figure out why there are sakura in cemeteries, but we like to think it’s not only to cheer up the dearly departed but to encourage people to visit these sweet souls at least once a year. Aoyama Cemetery is a beautiful stroll during the day. The sakura there are particularly beautiful. At night it’s a raucous party. It could be the perfect place to put down some plastic and open a small bottle of sake for just a few people. If you seem welcoming enough you’ll have new friends in no time.
Another very favorite hanami place is at the Nakameguro Sakura Festival along the concrete banks of the Meguro River, just a short walk from Nakameguro Station. There are over 800 trees jam-packed into a very small space and lit up at night in a spectacular display. Many restaurants along the river have viewing parties and meals served in spaces where one can see the lit up trees.
If you’re a fan of street food, all hanami locations have street stalls selling some version of takoyaki (griddled batter balls stuffed with diced octopus), cotton candy, yakitori and sweets.
If you don’t get to a hanami and still want to celebrate sakura season, we suggest the many sweets and cakes one can find being offered as a seasonal specialty. There are also sakura tea (sakurayu) made from pickled cherry blossoms, wagarashi (Japanese confections) and even a sakura craft beer called Sankt Gallen Sakura, which can be found sitting proudly amongst the sakura-decorated beer cans at the local convenience store.
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