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It’s almost one of our favorite times of the year… cherry blossom season!
Which means it’s also time for Hanami festivals! These festivals have been happening for centuries.
Hanami literally means flower viewings, or seeing the flowers. These days, that specifically refers to sakura – cherry blossoms.
In popular places, it’s common to reserve a picnic spot long before the party is held. Someone usually arrives early in the morning and spreads out a picnic sheet (most often a blue tarp), then either marks it with the group’s name and the starting time of the party, or somebody stays there throughout the entire day until the rest of the group arrives after work.
The season can start as early as the beginning of February (in the southern island of Okinawa), and go all the way to the end of May (in the northern city of Hokkaido). The blossom forecast (桜前線, sakurazensen, literally means “cherry blossom front”) is announced each year by the weather bureau, and is watched carefully by anyone planning hanami, because the blossoms only last a week or two.
We also have a form of Hanami in the US… in 1912, Japan gave 3,000 sakura trees as a gift to the US to celebrate the nations’ friendship. These trees were planted in Washington, D.C., and another 3,800 gifted trees were also taken there in 1965. The “National Cherry Blossom Festival” takes place when they bloom in early spring. There are also numerous cherry blossom festivals all over the US.
Almost as important as the flowers (at least, as far as we are concerned), is the food!
There’s a teasing Japanese proverb, “hana yori dango” (花より団子), which translates to “dumplings rather than flowers” and makes fun of people who prefer to eat and drink instead of admiring the blossoms.
Pink, green, and white are often seen in relation to hanami – these are the colors of the sakura trees, and the green also stands for yomogi – a spring herb that grows around this time. (If you’re familiar with mochi, you may have eaten the green yomogi mochi before.)
Hanami dango are dumplings, like mochi, except they’re made up of a mix of rice flours – mochi rice flour and sushi rice flour. They consist of three balls, which are colored green, white, and pink.
Hanami bento make the perfect picnic meals! They can include foods like tori no karaage, yakitori (or anything on a stick), sushi, tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled egg omelet), sekihan (red rice – mochi rice cooked with adzuki beans), shrimp, grilled fish like salmon and sakuradai (pink sea bream), temari sushi (ball sushi), simmered kabocha (pumpkin) and carrot, and sakura mochi. Spring vegetables and foods such as wild ferns, grilled salmon and green yomogimochi (spring herb dumplings) are also commonly found, as well as rice scattered with vegetables cut into the delicate shape of sakura petals.
To make a hanami bento at home, wherever you live, just use spring ingredients, making sure you have an abundance of warm colors in your box. Use what is local — all fresh and local produce is a perfect fit!
If you don’t feel like packing your own lunch, not to worry! There are often many food stalls at the parks where hanami are held. These food stalls serve things like takoyaki, yakisoba, okonomiyaki, jyaga batta (a baked potato that has been steamed, split, and topped with lots of butter), kyuri asa-zuke (a whole Japanese cucumber that has been pickled in kombu and rice vinegar on a stick).
And then, of course, there are lots of sakura-inspired food products.
Like we’ve mentioned before, there are sakura-flavored kit kats.
Starbucks in Japan has a sakura-flavored frappucchino and a sakura-flavored macaron.
There are sakura arare (senbei) that are covered in a cinnamon-sugar coating.
There are things like sakura-flavored pudding, sakura-flavored mochi ice cream, sakura-flavored sorbet, sakura blossom tea… they even bake whole blossoms into roll cakes.
If you can find it, you should definitely stock up on sakura extract when you’re in Japan!
We want to know… what are you doing to celebrate the upcoming cherry blossom season this year?