Welcome to Kiki+Koko: Let’s NihonGO!! Online, in blog form, written before a live studio audience. We’re your digital hosts and guides to a better understanding of Japanese language and culture, Kiki and Koko! Today, we’ll be talking about hanami. If you already know about hanami, you still might want to know the more in-depth cultural significance of this topic. So, Let’s NihonGO!!
In the month of April, spring is in the air and on the wind in the northern hemisphere of Earth. With it brings the blossoming of flowers and brightening of spirits. In Japan, and even spread to other parts of the world, a custom lives in this short time: A time where the cherry trees are in bloom, the weather is warm. Families and friends have picnics and parties amongst the 桜, sakura, cherry blossoms.
There are foods brought on these picnics of many varieties such as many types of sushi, fried meats, and treats like: 花見団子, hanami dango, three cute glutenous rice balls of usually green white and pink on a skewer, 桜餅, sakura mochi, a pink rice cake wrapped in a picked sakura leaf with sweet red bean paste in the middle, and many more.
This is 花見, hanami. A time for enjoyment, but also a time to appreciate the nature of life itself. But, we’ll get back to that in a moment. Let’s first see what >花見, actually means: 花, hana, means flower and 見, mi, means looking or viewing. Usually this takes place in the daytime, but there is also a night viewing called 夜桜, yozakura. 夜, read as yo, (but alone, it is usually read as yoru) means evening or night. The sakura in this kanji compound turns to zakura. This happens a lot of the time like in words mentioned in a previous articles about 稲荷寿司, inarizushi, which, by the way, also makes for a lovely easy picnic food for hanami.
Some may think that hanami, viewing cherry trees in blossom, is just the appreciation of something aesthetically pleasing and beautiful whilst having a great time with your family and friends. No, no, it’s oddly not so simple. We would have to say it’s a bit more existential. This is where we delve into the nature of hanami which starts with the cherry blossom.
Cherry blossoms are unique to Japanese culture in the way that they are an example of the idea of impermanence or 無常, mujou. The beautiful blossoms herald in the renewal that comes with spring but last only a short time before falling away. The feeling caused by this phenomena is known as 物の哀れ, 物の哀れ, mono no aware, which is known as the pathos of things, can be more easily understood as a sadness or empathy for this sort of impermanence. 物の哀れ, mono no aware, is something so innate and important when it comes to understanding Japanese culture and attitudes, generally speaking. It’s a sobering idea that something as enjoyable as hanami will be gone in time just as many things in life.
Sometimes this feeling of 物の哀れ, mono no aware, is difficult to portray, but we think a very good example of this in western literature would have to be Robert Frost’s Nothing Gold Can Stay. We hear that many were first acquainted with this poem through the book or film, The Outsiders, in which we see an appreciation of the beauty of the sunrise with the two protagonists, but even that short moment of beauty and peace, they realised, would come to a close inevitably. While the urge to stay gold and hold tight to the times stick in Western ideology, in this ideology, we see an acceptance of the fate of impermanence. (We hope this possible nostalgia helps in understanding.)
Speaking of nostalgia, we believe this might be why you see a lot of video comment lists filled with 懐かしいなあ!, Natsukashii naa! or How nostalgic! because of this appreciation for a time that is gone and the full understanding that it will never return.
But, it’s an experience, this sadness that comes with these things. It feels as though while hanami is a fun tradition that can be enjoyed worldwide, hanami is also something that should be appreciated in the important philosophical context. Sure, it can sound a bit depressing to some, but it’s not truly that way. It’s more emotionally enriching than simply happiness or sadness. While there’s an enjoyment for the parties and the food and flowers, there’s an knowledge that this time will pass. It’s not to be taken as good or bad, it’s just an awareness which can certainly bring a sadness. But, again, it’s just an appreciation for the nature of life itself. As we review over this sort of thought process, it seems important and to be what is permeated throughout Japanese philosophy and culture.
You might be left wondering how something as depressing as mono no aware can still result in an enjoyable experience. Well, there’s the obvious that people don’t simply dwell on these things and live in the enjoyment of the moment, but the deeper reason might be the traditional 仕方がない, shikata ga nai, or しょうがない, shou ga nai, attitude. Otherwise translated as it can’t be helped or nothing can be done about it. While an entire article could be used to explain this and its implications, it more simply relates to the previous idea. Basically, through these philosophies, everything is impermanent and there’s simply nothing to be done. It feels very English in an odd way.
Through all of this, however, we say: think however you will about hanami, but be sure to enjoy the time you have appreciating the cherry blossoms before they fall away.