Cherry blossoms have long been one of the most-loved flowers in Japan, not only because of their ephemeral beauty, but also because the image of the cherry blossom is deeply connected to the landscape in people’s minds. In Japan, the school year starts in April. When winter winds down and the weather begins to gets warmer and warmer, the cherry blossoms are in their full glory and they bathe the cities in pale pink light as if celebrating the start of new life.
As our hopes for the New Year culminate in feelings of tension and motivation, cherry blossom petals whirl about in the wind. For the Japanese, this spring scene evokes all of that. So every year when the cherry blossoms bloom, this memory and these feelings, return.
It’s during this season that Japanese people enjoy the beauty of the cherry blossoms by celebrating with an outdoor party called hanami, which translates to “flower viewing.” There are a number of variations on hanami; you might invite friends, family or colleagues, schedule your party for the day or at night, and plan an elaborate banquet or a simple picnic. The one common feature is that hanami is a celebration to be enjoyed under the beautifully bloomed cherry trees. Hanami in spring is one of the most important Japanese social events.
Hanami is a special occasion because the flowers bloom only once a year and the blossoms don’t last long. So even if it’s just a picnic, it’s an occasion worth preparing special food for. The Japanese expression “dumplings rather than flowers” probably expresses this sentiment best: it’s no fun hosting hanami without delicious food.
What to Eat at a Hanami Celebration
At a hanami picnic, people usually bring a hanami bento, which is a lunch box for hanami. Some people prepare the hanami bento at home, and others buy it at department store delicatessens.
At department store delis in Japan, you can find all kinds of delicious food—especially during spring, when you can find hanami bentos made by chefs at famous restaurants, including kaiseki restaurants. This makes it possible to taste a simplified version of kaiseki (that is to say portable kaiseki) at a more affordable price than usual. While it’s nice to bring a bento with handmade offerings to hanami, it’s even nicer to smack your lips over this seasonally limited culinary jewel box.
One of the standard menus for hanami bento is chirashi-sushi. Chirashi-sushi is very colorful and it brightens up a lunch box. It’s perfect to eat while enjoying the spring sunshine. The word “chirashi” probably brings to mind a picture of sushi with sashimi (raw fish) on top to many foreigners. But in western Japan, chirashi doesn’t necessarily mean sushi with raw fish. It is also called gomoku-sushi, which is vinegared rice with many vegetables and cooked fish.
No matter what you decide to eat at a hanami picnic, or where you source it from, sake is indispensable. It’s incredibly special and pleasant to taste a glass of delicious sake under a cherry blossom tree, surrounded by the glorious pale pink. And just like the hanami bento, I recommend that you try a good quality sake for this occasion.
Try Sake from Tohoku
Truthfully, I usually avoid sake outside Japan, because it’s not easy to find a good one. Especially the sake found at so-called Asian restaurants—most of it is not drinkable. In general, sake is a lot more like fancy French wine than beer at the supermarket; the quality is often dependent on the brand and the price. In other words, cheap sake can taste as bad as boxed wine. So what kind of sake is delicious and worth paying more for? There are so many wonderful types of sake from all over Japan, but today, I would like to recommend sake from Tohoku.
One month has passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit Tohoku, in northeastern Japan. Even after a month, the people in that area are still suffering many ongoing problems. The aftershocks still continue and the problem at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant hasn’t been resolved. The Tohoku region and its vicinity are suffering not only direct damage from the earthquake and tsunami but also from collateral loss. Any donation is helpful to support the people and community of Tohoku now, but it will be more and more helpful to continue to support the region by buying products from the devastated area and supporting the economy.
Today the Tohoku region is more known for the recent earthquake, but it is also well known as an important source of high quality rice and, consequently, a place where you can find great breweries of quality sake. In light of the devastation, some sake brewers in Tohoku have requested that people support the recovery by having hanami parties as usual and drinking sake produced by the brewers in the devastated area.
While Japanese people look forward to celebrating hanami every spring, this year, many people have understandably chosen to abstain from hanami. This is partly due to the current electricity shortages in Tokyo area. Many coveted cherry blossom spots have refrained from illumination during the night to save electricity. And many people have expressed reservations about holding a spring celebration, not wanting to indulge while so many people in the Tohoku region are suffering such difficulty.
Maybe that’s true. But I also think that precisely because of that difficulty, it’s important to cheer ourselves up by celebrating with hanami, eating delicious hanami bento and drinking good sake, preferably from the Tohoku region. I make this recommendation not only for Japanese people, but everyone. There is an uneasy atmosphere on the news every day all over the world. We need a break to pull ourselves together and to breathe easy again. So, how about going out for change to enjoy the cherry blossoms over a lunch box that’s a little more sumptuous than usual, and with a bottle of special sake from Tohoku?
Here are five sakes from Tohoku that you may be able to find in the U.S. If you are able to locate one, I urge you to try it.
Editor’s Note: Are the cherry blossoms blooming where you live? Will you be celebrating hanami this spring? What’s your favorite way to support Japan with earthquake relief? Chime in on the discussion below!
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.