Hanami 花 見 , literally “flower viewing,” is a popular spring pastime in Japan, and the flower most associated with hanami is the sakura cherry blossom. Sakura flowers are harbingers of spring, and the blooming of the trees coincides with the start of the new fiscal and school years. For this reason, the flowers have a strong connection with new beginnings in the minds of Japanese people.
Sakura blossoms are also symbolic of the fleeting and fragile nature of life. From start to finish, sakura trees only bloom for about two weeks of the year. Furthermore, their flowers are easily dislodged by even the slightest of winds, often sending cascades of pink and white petals fluttering in the breeze. The inherent beauty in the color and shape of the petals of these flowers also reflects Japanese ideals of purity and simplicity.
The practice of hanami has a long history, dating back to at least the Nara period in the 8th century. During that time, merrymakers often braved the cold winter months to see plum blossoms rather than the sakura cherry blossoms we associate with hanami today. It was during the Heian period (794 to 1185) that sakura came into vogue for hanami, and they remain the most popular flower to this day.
Today, a typical hanami party involves laying out under the sakura trees while eating and drinking with family, friends, and co-workers. Bento boxes are one of the more popular food items, and there are even bentos made specifically for hanami parties. Barbecuing on a grill is also a favorite activity, as well as partaking in some of the many time-limited sakura flavored food items on sale during hanami season, such as sakura-mochi and sakura flavored ice cream.
Securing a place to sit at the best viewing spots can be quite competitive. Therefore, it is not unusual to see party goers setting up camp hours ahead of time to secure their desired location. Hanami parties can last many hours, and often go on into the night. Viewing sakura at night is called yozakura 夜 桜 . Many of the more popular sakura viewing spots light up their trees at night, providing a dazzling atmosphere that is very different from the daytime. Even in places where the sakura are not lit up, viewing sakura at night can be very enjoyable, especially when the moon is out.
The practice of hanami is so popular that the Japan Meteorological Agency even publishes an annual forecast of when and where the sakura are going to be in full bloom. This map is based off the Yoshino Sakura. Yoshino Sakura have pale whitish-pink flowers with five petals, and are one of the more widely recognized varieties of cherry blossoms. While Yoshino sakura are indeed one of the most popular varieties, there are many other kinds as well, such Kanzan sakura. Kanzan sakura are kind of yaezakura, which are sakura with more than five petals, in this case that number can be as high as between thirty and fifty petals. Both of these varieties, and others, can be found in New York City parks.
The origin of many of New York City’s sakura trees stems from a gift from Japan in 1912. These trees were planted in many areas of upper Manhattan, Central Park, Riverside Park, and Sakura Park; however, given the average lifespan of these kinds of trees in public spaces the majority of the trees alive today are replacements.
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Locations are approximate. List is not fully comprehensive.