Each spring, the Japanese eagerly anticipate hanami. Literally translated as “looking at flowers,” hanami celebrates the delicate pink flowers' fleeting beauty. People of all sects picnic under the blooming trees, enjoying Japanese drinks and food.

Like the winter holidays in the United States, hanami is a cornerstone of Japanese culture. The year begins on April 1st on both financial and academic calendars, which coincides with the bloom. Thus, cherry blossoms symbolize new beginnings in Japan. Sakura, cherry blossoms, also represent ephemerality, a state of being that’s worthy of appreciated in Japanese culture. The Japanese make the most of this short window. People often celebrate well into the evening with hanging lanterns illuminating cherry blossoms. In April, though actual bloom time varies by regions, Japanese people celebrate hanami as one of the Japanese holidays.

Sakura Zensen Colors Japan Pink from the South

Starting in 1951, the Japanese Meteorological Agency has monitored the cherry blossom front, a much publicized phenomenon known as sakura zensen in Japanese. The sakura season officially begins when at least five or six flowers have opened on a sample tree in any given area. Just as quickly, it’s over. The flowers only bloom for about one week before the sakura fall like snow from the trees.

Tokyo, Okinawa, Kyoto, Hokkaido and Tohoku are top destinations for viewing cherry blossoms. Although it’s difficult to predict exactly when the flowers bloom, the first flowers usually appear in Okinawa in January. The bloom then sweeps up through the country, reaching the archipelago’s central islands, including Kyoto and Tokyo, in late March or early April before pushing up to the northernmost provinces where Tohoku and Hokkaido are located in early May.

Hanami Foods and Drinks

Hanami is, to a large extent, a drinking holiday in Japan. Although hanami-zake, drinking sake under the blossoms, is by far the most traditional hanami drinking ritual, beer is very popular too. Many breweries release seasonal cans decorated with cherry blossoms, just like you see Super Bowl and July 4th beer cans. Those who don’t drink alcohol can also enjoy hanami. Tea and non-alcoholic sakura-flavored beverages are common sights as well.

Picnickers generally set out a leisure sheet (Japanese version of blanket) as well as short folding tables for eating. Fried or grilled meat dishes that can be easily shared and eaten with chopsticks populate the table. These items include karaage, boneless, bite-sized pieces of deep-fried chicken; takoyaki, which are grilled octopus balls with sauce; and ebi fry, a popular fried prawn dish. Bento is popular at hanami picnics, as well.

Hanami bento features items such as makizushi (sushi rolls), inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed in fried tofu pouches), tamagoyaki (Japanese omelet) or kamaboko (a type of cured surimi that’s steamed until firm). Also included in the meal are sides like miso soup, onigiri and tsukemono, as well as salads such as kinpira gobo (cooked carrot and burdock root salad), shiro-ae (mashed tofu salad), potato salad and salads made with hijiki seaweed and lotus root.

Japanese sweets, or wagashi, round out the meal. Sakura mochi and hanami dango, trios of skewered rice-flour dumplings, are two of the most popular hanami treats. Hanami dango’s characteristic arrangement of pink, white and green balls is particularly distinctive. Citrus fruits and strawberries, a seasonal delicacy are also common.