Hanami is said to have begun with events attended by nobility during the Nara period (710 – 794), but in those days, they were enjoying plume blossoms (ume) rather than cherry blossoms. There is a record in the Nihon Koki (“Later Chronicles of Japan”) that Emperor Saga* held a cherry blossom festival in the garden of the imperial palace in 812, and people believe that this is the first time that cherry blossoms were the subject of hanami. Afterwards, these festivals came to be held every year, and from 831, it was formalized as a regular event of the imperial court. Emperor Saga loved cherry blossoms, and through his influence, the custom of hanami spread among the nobility, with members of the nobility composing Chinese poetry, playing music, and dancing under the cherry blossom trees.
* Reign：809 – 823
Eventually, the customs of hanami spread into samurai society as well. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the great unifiers of Japan during the Warring States period (1467 – 1615), was another man who had a profound love of cherry blossoms. His hanami parties at Yoshino (1594) and at Daigo (1598) were grand, opulent gatherings, attended by great number of his companions and featuring banquets, tea ceremony, fancy dress, and people enjoying themselves without concern for status or propriety. Hideyoshi’s hanami shifted the concept from elegant cherry-blossom viewing with formal music and dancing to a much livelier event enjoyed by crowds of people.
The hanami party at Daigo was a spectacular event attended by about 1,300 of Hideyoshi’s retinue, including Kodai-in (Hideyoshi’s wife), Yodo-dono (his concubine and second wife), Hideyori (his heir), Tokugawa Ieyasu, and other prominent feudal lords and their spouses. There were banquets and tea houses, and there was also fancy dress. It was a lively, colorful event, during which the noblewomen changed their outfits twice. The mood of the hanami party also reflects the relief Hideyoshi must have felt after having achieved the unification of Japan and producing an heir. It was only half a year later that he passed away.
It was between 1661 and 1673 during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) that commoners began to enjoy hanami like the nobility and samurai did. In general, they would go to enjoy the sight of the single cherry blossom tree that customarily stands within the grounds of a temple. Later, between 1716 and 1736, Tokugawa Yoshimune (the eighth shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate) planted thousands of cherry blossom trees on Asukayama, the banks of the Sumida and Koganei rivers, and other places and encouraged commoners to take part in hanami. As a result, they could witness the majestic sight of all of these trees in full bloom together, and hanami became an annual custom for common people as well. When the cherry blossoms began to bloom, people went out to see them and set up hanami feasts under the trees.
So what was hanami like during the Edo period? There are many ukiyo-e paintings of hanami scenes remaining from that time, allowing us to get a glimpse.
There is a rakugo story called “Nagaya no hanami” (“The Tenement House Hanami”). In the story, the landlord of a poor tenement house invites his tenants to see the cherry blossoms in Ueno, saying “Let’s go to see the cherry blossoms and throw a big party to drive out the god of poverty.” He had also prepared sake and large bento boxes filled with food, so everyone gleefully joined him. However, it turned out that the entire feast consisted of substitutes: the sake was just diluted, low-grade tea, the egg omelet was just yellow daikon pickle, and the kamaboko fishcakes were just scorched rice (playing on “kamazoko”, meaning “bottom of the pot”, though some performers employ different wordplay in variants of the story).
While the tenants in the story must have been disappointed by what they found after looking forward to a hanami feast, you can see how there was a general consciousness at the time that even people living in poverty in back-alley tenement houses would still enjoy hanami together, bringing “sake” and “bento with omelet and kamaboko”.
Bento was at the heart of hanami feasts. “Hanami bento” consisted of things for everyone to enjoy, and people made bento with the mindset of “showing off” and “being seen”.
In the late-Edo-period cooking book “Ryori hayashinan” (“Quick Guide to Cooking”), there are menus for hanami bento. These had three tiers, from delicacies at the top to casual foods at the bottom, bringing together tasty treats using seasonal spring ingredients. The upper tier included items like castella tamago (a thick, cake-like omelet), wata kamaboko (fishcake made with abalone innards), steamed flounder, sakuradai (a type of sea bream), and flatfish sashimi, as well as sweet items like karukan (sweet buns) and kinton (mashed sweet potatoes). A separate bento box called a warigo would contain items like grilled onigiri.
We tried reproducing this bento by referring to the upper tier of hanami bento introduced in Ryori hayashinan.
What were the bento boxes that contained the hanami feast like? Bento culture flourished in the Edo period, and people made all kinds of bento boxes, working hard to make them both practical and stylish.
Even before hanami was popularized among commoners, court nobility and feudal lords would enjoy no-asobi outings to see the cherry blossoms or maple leaves. During these times, they brought with them no-bento boxes. Aside from sake sets, boxes, rice bowls, soup bowls, and other tableware, no-bento also included many tools for making tea, so it was also called cha-bento, or “tea bento”. These were designed to be carried over the shoulder by passing a rod through the metal fittings attached to the side of the box.
The most common kind of bento box brought to hanami was jubako. These tiered bento boxes first appeared during the Muromachi period (1338 – 1573), and had entered general use by commoners during the middle Edo period. Jubako are handy containers that do not take up much space and let you serve a large number of dishes at once, after opening them up and laying out the compartments. The standard is four-tiered jubako, but during the Edo period, there were ten-tiered jubako, as well as square, round, pentagonal, and various other shapes of jubako. All kinds of jubako were made during this time, from simple ones used by common people to luxurious ones made with gold lacquer.
Sageju boxes, which had handles for easy carrying, were also frequently used. These contained jubako, sake flasks, sake cups, plates, chopsticks, and so on. Not only were these functional for portable use, but they were also created specially for use at banquets. As a result, they were made with elaborate designs to suit different seasons or outings, and they saw frequent use throughout the year, such as for theater outings, hanami, autumn leaf viewing, moon viewing, and outings to enjoy cooler evenings.
Warigo are bento boxes made from thin strips of light wood like cypress, with dividers on the inside. The dividers keep the flavors of the various foods separate from each other, which was useful when eating outside or sharing food with other families. Cypress contains antibacterial substances that help to delay the spoilage of ingredients, keeping them fresh. It also has good breathability and moisture retention, so the ingredients do not become stale over time.
Oribako are also made from light wood. These are disposable containers that are derived from oshiki, which were used as tools in Buddhist or Shinto practices or as food tables. Disposable containers like these are a distinctly Japanese creation.
Famous hanami locations that have long been popular are depicted in many ukiyo-e paintings.
These places have been made what they are by the thoughts and feelings of the people who went there.
Here, we’ll introduce some of these famous locations while also talking about the way people felt about the cherry blossoms.
The most famous place for cherry blossoms in Edo was Toeizan Kan’ei-ji Temple in Ueno, of which it was said “there was nowhere that was not covered in a pile of flowers”. The founder, Tenkai, wanted to make the temple a place where ordinary people could relax, and transplanted cherry blossom trees from Yoshino to follow a concept of emulating Kyoto*. This is how Ueno came to be famous for its cherry blossoms.
While the grounds of Kan’ei-ji were open to the general public, it was also the family temple of the Tokugawa family, and so music, drinking, and viewing the cherry blossoms at night were prohibited. Later on, the grounds became Japan’s first public park in 1873. There have been times when the park was devastated by war and by earthquakes, and the current vista of cherry blossoms in Ueno is the result of local people working together during the difficult post-war era to fund the replanting of 1,250 trees and 300 double-blossom trees.
*Tenkai (1536 – 1643) was also a political counselor who served three generations of the Tokugawa shoguns (Ieyasu, Hidetada, and Iemitsu), and he planned the city layout of Edo to emulate that of Heiankyo (old Kyoto), following a classical city-building concept based on suitability with the four guardian spirits of Chinese mythology. He also recognized that in order to build a stable and prosperous Edo, it was important to have places where the common people could relax. It was with this mindset that the cherry blossom trees of Ueno Toeizan were planted.
While Asukayama was always a scenic location, it was used as the falcon hunting grounds of the shogunate and thus not available to the general public. Later, however, the shogun Yoshimune transplanted 1,270 cherry blossom trees from the grounds of Edo Castle to Asukayama and opened the grounds to the general public. When the cherry blossom trees were in full bloom, he would send his retainers out with plenty of food and drink, and had them treat even common people. These enthusiastic incentives had a great effect, and Asukayama became a popular, lively spot for hanami. Today, the park has 650 cherry blossom trees, and its late-blooming double-blossom trees are particularly popular.
Of the Sumida River, it was said “there are many places to see the cherry blossoms, but there is no greater bustle than at the cherry blossoms of Sumida River banks”. Yoshimune also planted cherry blossom trees here, a place that stands alongside Asukayama as a famous spot for hanami. Aside from Yoshimune’s encouragement, hanami was already popular here because of the convenient transportation by boat from the city, and the proximity of entertainment districts such as Asakusa and Yoshiwara. Today, one can enjoy the cherry blossoms from river barges or boat taxis.
One of the most popular souvenirs from hanami was sakuramochi. There was a well-received kind sold at the gates of Chomeiji, a temple on the Sumida River. These were made by the gatekeeper, who wrapped mochi with a red bean paste filling in a pickled cherry blossom tree leaf.
In “Toen shosetsu” (“Rabbit Garden Tales”, by Kyokutei Bakin* et al., 1824), there is an account of how 770,000 leaves were pickled in a year, and 387,500 sakuramochi were sold, showing just how popular the treat was. Because of this origin, sakuramochi was called “Chomeiji mochi” in Edo, but in the old capital of Kyoto and its environs, sakuramochi was called “Domyoji mochi” after the flour that their version was made from. This flour was made by grinding glutinous rice from Domyoji Temple in Fujidera, Osaka.
* This was a compilation of stories by writers who had gathered in response to a call by Bakin and shared rare and strange stories once a month. The group was called the Toenkai, or “Rabbit Garden Group”, after which the compilation was named.
Let’s take a look at some famous places for hanami outside of Edo next.
The cherry blossom trees of Arashiyama began with the transplantation of trees from Yoshino by Emperor Go-Saga*, and successive emperors enjoyed hanami there. Hundreds of years later, in the Meiji era (1868 – 1921), the statesman Iwakura Tomomi assembled a conservation group and worked to replant cherry blossom trees in Arashiyama. There is also a famous anecdote about how Zhou Enlai was moved by the sight of the cherry blossoms in Arashiyama when he was studying abroad in Japan during the Taisho era (1912 – 1926), long before he became the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. Approximately 1,500 cherry blossom trees are planted at the foot of the mountain of Arashiyama. Today, people often view the cherry blossoms from barges or the Togetsukyo bridge.
* Reign：1242 – 1246
The “Gion Shidarezakura” (“Weeping Cherry Blossom Tree of Gion”)
in Maruyama Park is also known as the “Gion no Yozakura” (“Night Sakura of Gion”).
Maruyama Park is famous for cherry blossom viewing at night, as described by Yosano Akiko*, who composed the poem “Traveling to Kiyomizu/Moonlit cherry blossoms scatter through Gion/Everyone I see tonight is beautiful”. The weeping cherry blossom tree here, known as “Gion no Yozakura” (“The Night Sakura of Gion”), is about 90 years old, and succeeded the original tree to bear this name, which was 220 years old. There is a fantastic beauty to its blossoms lit up by the night bonfires. The illuminations last until 1 in the morning. Within the park, there are about 800 other cherry blossom trees as well. Maruyama Park is popularly regarded as one of the best hanami spots in Kyoto, and when the cherry blossom trees flower, it seems as if the entire park is filled with cherry blossoms.
* B. 1878, D. 1942
The cherry blossom trees of Yoshino have captured people’s hearts since ancient times, and have been praised in many songs and poems. It has been described as a place where one can see a thousand cherry blossom trees at a glance—in fact, the scenery is truly incredible, with about 30,000 cherry blossom trees of 200 different types. This landscape is the beneficiary of traditions of mountain worship. The cherry blossom trees were regarded as sacred trees and protected accordingly, and the worshipers also had a custom of donating saplings. The poet Saigyo*, who loved the cherry blossoms of Yoshino, composed many poems about them and had his hermitage there. One such poem reads “Since the day I saw the blossoms on the treetops at Yoshinoyama, my heart was no longer my own.” In July 2004, the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”, which includes Yoshinoyama, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
* B. 1118, D. 1190
Blossoms carpeting Hirosaki Castle’s outer moat.
Photograph courtesy the Hirosaki Park website.
Hirosaki Castle (Hirosaki Park) in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture is one of Tohoku’s best hanami spots, but historically speaking, it is actually something of a newcomer. During the Edo period, the garden castle mainly had pine trees, with only 25 cherry blossom trees. When the feudal clans of Japan were abolished with the Meiji Restoration and the castle fell into ruin, the former feudal lord planted 1,000 cherry blossom trees, followed by another 1,000 to commemorate the marriage of Emperor Taisho. In the Showa era (1926 – 1989), a further 1,300 cherry blossom trees were donated and planted by philanthropists, bringing the garden to its current state as a famous hanami spot. Being located in northern Japan, the cherry blossoms flower from the end of April, and are in full bloom by the early May holidays of Golden Week, the best time to see them. One spectacular sight is that of the outer castle moat covered in a carpet of pink blossoms.
The Kawazu-zakura trees of the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture are famous for being an early-blooming type of cherry blossom tree, starting in early February. The first of this type was discovered in 1955, and after 11 years, it bloomed for the first time, producing vibrant pink blossoms. Academic researched determined it to be a new species in 1974. Its blossoms have become the flower of the town of Kawazu, and the public and private sectors have worked together to continue planting trees, with about 8,000 trees creating a beautiful vista today. The trees also enjoy a long flowering season, lasting for around a month.
In ancient Japan, people practiced the customs of “yama-asobi” or “no-asobi”, in which they would go out into the mountains on pleasant spring or autumn days to enjoy time outdoors and eat meals. This was more than a simple outing to eat, however. People would enjoy their meals while being a part of nature, within the seasonal landscape. The bento they opened in the outdoors connected people with nature and the seasons, and deepened the bonds they shared with the friends and family who gathered with them.
Tokushima, in Shikoku, is home to a charming custom to celebrate the seasonal festivals of spring. On April 3 every year, around the time of the Doll Festival of the old lunar calendar, children would pack treats into small jubako boxes and go to places like the mountains or the seaside. Depending on where they lived (town, mountain village, or seaside), this would be hanami, yama-asobi, or iso-asobi (beach outings), but to the children, it was a once-a-year event that they were free to enjoy by themselves.
Each of the children would carry their own distinctive, small jubako bento box, called a yusanbako. Their families would fill the yusanbako with sweets and treats like sushi rolls and omelets. Once the children had eaten them all, they would get people in the neighborhood to top up their boxes with more. This custom had endured since the Edo period, and it was an unforgettable, fun memory for many children. One can also imagine the warm gazes of adults watching over the children and supporting their growth into adolescence. While the custom fell out of favor in the middle of the Showa era, in recent years, some communities have been trying to revive it.
The traditional yusanbako of Tokushima are small, hand-held jubako. These boxes have three tiered layers, and are decorated with various patterns. Typically, the bottom tier held sushi rolls, the middle held vegetables simmered in soy sauce, and the top held steamed cakes or agar jelly.
Born in 1950. After working for Japan Airlines Co., Ltd. as a flight attendant on international routes, and later as a lecturer in the company’s cultural affairs department (providing instruction in serving customers), she established Human Education Service. Since 1997, she has worked as a special lecturer at the Japan Travel Bureau Foundation to improve hospitality in various fields of tourism and provide guidance on how to foster hospitality, and she has also served as a tourism promotion advisor and committee member for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, the Japan Tourism Agency, and local government. Since 2009, she has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Takasaki City University of Economics and other institutions. Her work involves research of modern hospitality, and as well as traditional Japanese hospitality and dietary culture.