Art, Health and History. Hanami: Flower Viewing for Wellbeing.

In this post, Steph discusses the custom of hanami and presents some of the blossoms found in the Whitworth’s collections, as well as some of last year’s blossoms in Whitworth Park.

Hanami (花見) or ‘flower viewing’, hana (花) meaning ‘flower’ and mi (見) meaning ‘see’ or ‘view’, has long been a time-honoured tradition in Japan. Today ‘hanami’ usually refers to flower viewing in the context of sakura ( 桜) or cherry blossoms. Hanami has become synonymous with these delicate flowers which begin to lose their petals not long after blooming, showering passers-by with a soft rain of pale pink or white petals. I’ve always looked forward to the blooming of the cherry trees and each spring I’ve always made a point to check if the cherry trees in my local park are in bloom yet whenever I walk my dogs. Although they are short-lived flowers, I’ve always found their gentle beauty to be very uplifting.

This year the blooming of the cherry blossoms is different; there should be no picnics under the cherry trees. People in Japan are being asked to refrain from holding picnics, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Nor can there be any picnics here in the UK, regardless of how much we might like to emulate this fantastic custom in its entirety right away. That does not, however, mean that we cannot enjoy the blooming of the cherry blossoms and other spring flowers; I’ve seen many a stunning photograph taken by people as they are out having their one form of exercise a day! My colleague Rebecca recently brought the National Trust’s #BlossomWatch on social media to my attention and she produced a lovely Instagram post for this virtual hanami. Today we’re going to look at the origins of hanami and we’ll bring the outside in by looking at some of the blossoms in our collections, as well as some of last year’s blossoms in Whitworth Park.

Courtly Origins

It’s thought that hanami started in Japan during the Nara period (710-794 CE.) The first flowers to be celebrated in this context were not cherry blossoms. Influenced by Chinese culture, the Japanese court observed ume, plum blossoms. The plum blossoms became the subject of poetry. During the Heian period (794-1185 CE), cherry blossoms began to be the flower of choice. The Emperor Saga seems to have been credited with holding some of the first celebrations centred around the blooming of the cherry blossoms, which indicated the end of the colder months. Poems were written celebrating the beauty of cherry blossoms more. This emerging trend for holding parties to celebrate the cherry blossoms eventually filtered down to the lower nobility and by the Edo period, around 1603-1868 CE, it seems that most people were celebrating hanami.

Ishikawa Toyonobu (1711-1785.) Woodblock print of a woman hanging a poem on a cherry tree. C. 1741. Source: Library of Congress.

The shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751 CE) was fond of hunting and had some areas outside of Edo (now Tokyo) transformed into places of leisure. This involved the planting of many cherry trees and maple trees. He had cherry trees planted along the banks of the Sumida River as part of this plan for creating beautiful spaces for recreation. The planting of so many cherry trees and the emphasis on recreational spaces is thought by some scholars to have helped to encourage the custom of hanami even more. Some scholars have suggested that one of the reasons that Tokugawa Yoshimune put so much effort into creating recreational spaces was in order to help distract people from the depressing effect that some of his reforms had on the economy. If this is so then, given the popularity of hanami today, I believe it may well have worked!

Flower Power

There are, of course, many varieties of cherry tree. The cherry trees we talk about in the context of hanami are of a primarily ornamental purpose to humans. I have found some references to cough syrups made from the bark of cherry trees, especially wild cherry varieties, in the West in particular. The health benefits of the cherry trees people observe during hanami appear to be largely due to their beauty. We hear a lot about the benefits of spending time in green spaces these days, for both our physical and mental wellbeing.

A custom which celebrates the beauty of nature is good not just for our own health as individuals but also for us all as a society. Some aspects of hanami must be put aside this year for the safety of everyone but that doesn’t mean that we cannot be mindful of the beauty of nature at all. If anything, it seems that many people have already risen to the challenges presented during this time and have provided the world with a virtual hanami through the images and resources they share online. This arguably has the potential to reach more people around the world and provide them with something beautiful to appreciate during their isolation. You can usually follow the blooming of the cherry blossoms in Japan through the NHK’s international service, NHK World, where you can also watch documentaries about hanami from previous years. The NHK World website is a great resource for information about hanami, especially this year!

Kitao Shigemasa (1739-1820.) Yayoi asakuyama hanami or ‘Third Lunar Month, Blossom Viewing at Asakuyama Hill.’ C.1772-1776. Woodcut print. Source: The Library of Congress

The meaning of the cherry blossom, as with many flowers, does not appear to have been always fixed in one context. The Kokin Wakashū, also known as the Kokinshū, is a collection of over one thousand poems written during the Heian period. This anthology of poems contains poems which link cherry blossoms to love but it also contains poems which link their falling petals to the idea of the shortness of life. Like many flowers, it seems that they can have multiple meanings. What I think is most important about the cherry blossom and many other spring flowers at this time, however, is their ability to bring people together (even if mostly online for many of us right now) and their associations with new life and brighter days. It’s especially poignant during this pandemic.

Walter Crane certainly linked the cherry tree to romance in this illustration, ‘Cherry Ripe’, which was a design for a greetings card from ‘The Quiver of Love.’ Source: the Whitworth.

A Sweet Feast

Picnics under the cherry blossoms are taken very seriously in Japan. A person from one’s friendship group or company might be sent out to find the perfect spot and guard it for quite some time until everyone else arrives. These celebrations can last well into the evening, unsurprising considering that they are celebrating such a beautiful but short-lived flower! They make the most of it while they can. Above you can see some of the blossoms we enjoyed seeing on our winter blooming cherry trees last year. These trees have since been moved to a better spot in Whitworth Park, so we can all enjoy their blossoms together for many years to come.

Parts of the cherry tree and its blossoms help to provide inpiration for a sweet feast for humans; there is a sweet treat in Japan called sakura mochi, which is made using rice and is filled with anko, sweet red bean paste. It is wrapped in the pickled leaves of cherry trees. Its colour emulates the lovely pink hue of cherry blossoms. It’s not just humans, however, who celebrate the blooming of the cherry blossoms; the mejiro or Japanese White-eye is a beautiful, plucky little bird that seems to be very fond of cherry blossoms. They feast on the sweet nectar of the blossoms. Above you can see a Japanese White-eye. Scroll to the right to see a picture of one style of sakura mochi! Different regions in Japan have different styles of sakura mochi.

Closer to home in Whitworth Park, the Indian ring-necked parakeets enjoy feasting on the blossoms of our winter blooming trees, as well as those that bloom in spring. They’re quite vocal about their appreciation for the blossoms, too!

Nearly Lost

Although cherry blossoms are such a significant flower in Japanese culture, in the 1920s it became clear that many cultivated varieties of cherry tree appeared to be in danger of disappearing from Japan. Collingwood Ingram, ‘Cherry’ Ingram as he became known due to his love of these trees, wanted to help bring these varieties back from what was believed to be the brink of extinction in Japan. He was able to reintroduce more specimens of the Taihaku or ‘Great White Cherry’ variety back to Japan and the world of cherry enthusiasts, along with other varieties, with the help of cherry tree growers in Japan. He introduced many species of cherry tree to the UK and also created his own hybrid varieties.

Another Familiar Spring Flower

Bluebells in Pryor’s Wood, Hertfordshire. Source: WikiCommons

In a way, we already have hanami to a certain extent in Britain; humble bluebells create quite a spectacle when they form carpets in aptly named ‘bluebell woods’, which many people like to wander through in spring. To the Victorians the bluebell, with its bowed head, was a symbol of humility. Britain is a stronghold for a large proportion of the world’s bluebells and it was thought that our native species Hyacinthoides non-scripta, the ‘English bluebell’ might be threatened by another species of bluebell.

During the Victorian period the ‘Spanish bluebell’ (Hyacinthoides hispanica) was introduced to gardens in Britain and it was thought for a while that this might cause problems for our native species. Recently, however, it has been suggested that our native species has quite an advantage over the introduced species; it seems that it is more fertile.

Doodling Blossoms: A Mindful Way to Enjoy Spring

I thought I’d end this foray into flower viewing with another way for you all to enjoy spring. My colleague Dave has been doodling blossoms lately as a form of mindfulness. Why not have a go yourself?


You can find out about the National Trust’s #BlossomWatch campaign here:

You can watch a lot of great hanami related content on the NHK World website:

The Library of Congress has some great images of cherry blossoms that are free to use and reuse:

Naoko Abe.  ‘Cherry’ Ingram: The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Cherry Blossoms (London, 2019).

Sylvie Brosseau, ‘Tokyo’s Modern Parks: Spaces and Practices’, in Michel Conan (ed.), Performance and Appropriation: Profane Rituals in Gardens and Landscapes (Washington, 2007).

Florence Du Cane. The Flowers and Gardens of Japan (London, 2013).

Seiko Goto and Takahiro Naka. Japanese Gardens: Symbolism and Design (London, 2016).

Ewa Matchotka. Visual Genesis of Japanese National Identity: Hokusai’s Hyakunin Isshu (Brussels, 2009).

Ann McClellan. The Cherry Blossom Festival: Sakura Celebration (Boston, 2005).

Alan Scott Pale. Ningyō: The Art of the Japanese Doll (Vermont, 2005).

Mizue Sawano. The Art of the Cherry Tree (New York, 2006).

Haruo Shirane. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts (New York, 2013).

Paul Varley. Japanese Culture (Honolulu, 2000).

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