Edited: March 2021
In a normal year, one of the most popular spring events in Japan is called “o-hanami” (Cherry Blossom Viewing Festival).
Due to COVID-19 this year will definitely be different, hanami parties will be down-scaled and may be prohibited in some of the more popular areas. Keep on the look out for ways you can enjoy the yearly spring tradition during the pandemic, coming soon. Until then here is some information about hanami parties, just in case there is a secluded sakura area nearby your local area!
People come from all over the world to see beautiful cherry trees in full bloom. Like a Fourth of July picnic and fireworks display in the United States, this is an annual tradition for Japanese people. The “o-hanami” festival is a sign that spring has arrived and time to enjoy the outdoors with family, friends, and coworkers. As a foreigner, it is a chance to enjoy one of Japan’s favorite cultural customs. To help you have the best experience possible, I have listed some helpful information.
Basic Items For Hanami Parties:
A picnic mat or blanket is indispensable! Japanese people find it convenient to purchase an inexpensive waterproof picnic mat at a 100 Yen shop (like Daiso). It is easy to fold up and travel with you. The waterproof mat is helpful as the ground is sometimes damp (wet) in the spring – especially if it has rained the day or so before your “o-hanami” party. We would recommend purchasing more than one. This will help you have enough space for people to sit or to put food on without being directly placed on the ground.
Portable folding cushion:
If you need more cushion for your body, an inexpensive folding cushion can be purchased to be placed on the mat to help you sit more comfortably.
In Japan, you must not leave any garbage in a public area. This is important to know that all the food you bring, leftovers or things not fully eaten need to be placed into garbage bags that you will bring home with you. Like the number of picnic mats, it is best to have several garbage bags. Unlike some other countries (like the U.S.), garbage bags are very small in size in Japan. Therefore, they do not hold many items.
It is best to bring disposable plates, cups chopsticks, napkins, etc. This way you do not have to wash the items when you get back to your residence.
In Japan, wet tissues are common and used for cleaning your hands before and after you eat your food. It is similar to the use of “hand sanitizer” in the United States. This is a great item to bring to make sure your hands and face are clean before eating the food you have brought to share with your family, friends and/or co-workers.
Spring in Japan might feel warm, but sometimes it tends to be colder than you think since the weather still has a damp, spring feel. Therefore, if you are a person who easily gets cold, and will be viewing the cherry blossoms for several hours or going in the early evening hours, it’s an option to bring hand and/or feet warmers. In Japan, you can easily find them in a pharmacy store or the health section of a department store.
Bottle Cap or Wine Opener:
Japanese parties tend to have alcohol as a standard beverage option. Therefore, it is important to be able to easily open your bottles. Many bottles in Japan can be opened by unscrewing the cap. However, just in case, one person in the group must be designated to bring a bottle/wine opener.
Food and “Kanji” Leader
For internationals, the concept of a get together/party might be different. In Japan, if you go with a Japanese group to “o-hanami,” it is VERY IMPORTANT to know there is a coordinator called “kanji.” S/he will be in charge of “staking” the location, letting everyone know the date/time to meet, the directions on how to get there and asking or directing people on what to bring for food or beverages. The coordinator “kanji” is also the one collecting money from the group members if the group decides to buy food and bring it collectively.
So, the key is if you are joining a Japanese group, please ask in advance to know who the “kanji” is, ask her/him if s/he is going to bring all the food/beverages and collect money at the site or should you bring food/beverages separately. If the group is collecting money, be prepared to have a cash (Yen) on you or pay by phone app to “kanji”.
Note: Some department stores sell “o-hanami” bento boxes. It is an easy way to enjoy your picnic food if you are accustomed to Japanese food.
Toilets are extremely hard to find or not found at all near the “o-hanami” festival areas or parks. If you do find one, the line is VERY long. It is best to use a toilet in a café, restaurant, department store, convenience store or other location close to the festival when you see one. It might be challenging to find toilets as you get closer to the festival sites. Remember, you should be polite and purchase something from the location where you stop. This is considered nice manners in Japan.
Also, you should be prepared to not have toilet paper in the toilet at the cherry blossom festival site or it might be a Japanese style toilet rather than a western style toilet. So, just in case, do bring tissues for the bathroom. This is a good use of the pocket tissues that are handed out free on the streets around Japan’s major cities areas.
DO NOT go to the bathroom outdoors (in nature). You might see people doing this, but it’s considered inappropriate. Please use your common sense.
Manners to Know to View the Cherry Blossoms:
Locations to sit:
Since the “o-hanami” festival is so popular, it’s extremely hard to find a place to sit. Like in the U.S. at major outdoor events, you might have to come early in the morning to “stake out” your place and mark it. In Japan, you will see people marking their mat space with chalk, lines, etc. This is normal. If you place your mat down, it is best to make sure one person stays with it. Your space might be taken by another individual or group if you leave the mat on the ground without any physical person standing there.
Note: You should only take as much space as you honestly need. Do not take larger amounts as people need to share the limited space, and that would be considered rude in Japan. To determine the size of one person’s space, it is considered a typical measurement if you (the individual) lay down on the ground and naturally determines the amount of space from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. Your personal body size would equal your total personal space and food space.
If you wish, you can pay for a private company to “stake out” your viewing spot. You will need to Google the name of the companies available for each park. The average cost is 2,000-3,000 yen.
You cannot put your mat down or sit on the cherry blossom tree roots as well as you cannot sit down in a maintenance grass location. Maintenance areas in Japan will usually have a sign and/or rope to help you know that it’s a prohibited area.
Do not climb onto any part of the cherry blossom trees. BBQ grills are also prohibited.
A recent rule has been established by the parks (check your local area) to prohibit people from “staking” their viewing spot a few days in advance of their visit.
For example, two very famous viewing parks in Tokyo are Ueno Park and Yoyogi Park. For Ueno Park in Tokyo, you cannot enter the park from 11 PM-5 AM. Yoyogi Park in Tokyo now prohibits people to stake their viewing places one day before their visit.
One of your group’s party needs to check if the location allows people to have a party at the site. If one of your friends is Japanese, that would be helpful. They tend to know where you can go or not. However, if you are new, do your best to ask or look at the English information posted. Many posters or notices regarding the cherry blossom festival locations are written in English as this is again an international event. Therefore, people from all over the world attend it.
Your group should not consume too much alcohol, talk too loud, play really loud music or do things so that you are a disturbance to other people around you. Use your common sense! Be respectful to others around you, clean up everything, make sure you don’t take too much space or time, etc. This will allow others to enjoy the festival too.
Alcohol Harassment “Al-Hara”:
What is “Al-Hara”? This is known as alcohol harassment in Japan. It is important to know this is not a direct police intervention/bust (being caught by the police in public). “Al-hara” can be reported to the police from any person watching you (bystander) in the public and having evidence like video or taping via mobile phone.
Be very careful!!! Forcing people to drink alcohol can result in less than three (3) years in jail. Forcing people to take alcohol shots and that person passing out at the “o-hanami” or other event results in a $5,000.00 USD fine and 15 years in jail. Supporting or encouraging the above results in a $1,000.00 USD fine and less than one year in jail. There are many cases where people have been reported by the general public in recent years and got arrested by the police. Please be mindful of your actions and the consequences!
Remember, this is a popular event, so there will be people everywhere walking around, eating and taking photos. Transportation (trains, subways, and buses) will be crowded before and after the festival. Try and pick the best time for you to avoid the “peak” times of the -day, if possible.
Be polite and wait for your turn to take “selfies.” You will have time to take an amazing photo. There are also wonderful items to buy and eat around the “cherry blossom” festival time in stores or restaurants. Try them! The food is specially designed for this festival time. Try it and see if you like it! It makes the experience even more “Japanese.”
Cherry Blossom “Full Bloom” Schedule:
There will be information available with dates that show when and where the cherry blossoms are in full bloom in Japan. Use that information to plan your event. Try to go to some of the smaller, less known locations if you prefer seeing fewer people. Sometimes there are wonderful places just around your neighborhood. If you plan on going to the larger, popular locations, plan ahead. Train tickets for the most popular destination spots sell out quickly (e.g. Shinkansen- bullet train).
Other Important Information to Know:
Peak days/hours: The peak times vary, but when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom expect large crowds.
See my helpful viewing times below:
Helpful information: The best time to view the cherry blossoms is from 9:00-10:00 AM or 1:00-4:00 PM.
- 6:00 AM-11:00 AM is empty/not crowded.
- 11:00 AM-2:00 PM is very crowded (many children and retired people).
- 2:00 PM-5:00 PM is considered the best time to view the cherry blossoms.
- 5:00 PM-8:00 PM is the most crowded party time of the day with “o-hanami” company people/party events.
- After 8:00 PM, it’s empty/not crowded.
Weekend: It is almost the same information as weekdays. The only difference is after 5:00 PM it’s empty because there is no work or workers/parties.
Plan and make reservations in a timely manner:
If you are planning to go anywhere that requires a reserved train ticket and/or hotel, make sure you plan and start making your reservation as soon as possible. This is a good time to do it! Popular places tend to fill up quickly. The cost can vary, so do your research.
Do not bring the “kitchen sink” with you to view the cherry blossoms. If you are having the “o-hanami” party with your friends or co-workers, pack only the items you really think you need and can easily bring back home. Again, there are no garbage (trash) cans allowed in the site areas. So, plan on packing and unpacking it. You will be walking in crowded areas, so less is better.
If you lived in Japan for a while, try a new location or area. Go on a new adventure. Every location has a different feeling to it. Take this opportunity to get out and explore Japan.
Peggy / United States