Today I went to a hanami (or is it an o-hanami?) at our local park. Hanami, I'm told, means cherry blossom viewing. You have to love a culture that has a special word for going out to look at spring blossoms, don't you?
Take a good look at this picture. Yes, good, there are trees blossoming. Those are cherry trees, and the blossoms are called sakura. Welcome to the local park.
Now look at the people. What do you notice? Right, there are people in the foreground playing a sort of casual volleyball, and all around there are people either sitting on tarps (blue tarps are de rigueur; I wonder if FEMA has the same supplier?) or at a table with food.
Notice that no one is actually looking at the blossoms? It turns out that if you take a good look at the blossoms when you get there, they don't do a whole lot in the course of a quiet afternoon. So everyone takes in the blossom scene as they arrive, and then gets down to picnicking. Because really, hanami is just a fancy word for "thank the kami it's spring; let's go outside, chat, relax, and eat!"
I have a theory about this. Japanese folks are work notoriously long hours. It's not enough to get there at 8am and leave at 6pm. Nope, a lot of people work until way later. And then they go in on Saturdays, too. As long as the boss is there, employees tend to be there. So, way back in the 700s, I think, some employees-- tired of winter and long days at the office--got together and decided they wanted to go on a picnic. But they needed a reason to tell the boss because they were leaving Saturday at 5pm instead of at 8pm. So they told the boss they were going to go to a hanami, that most Japanese of all pasttimes, and invited the boss to come along. The boss, being equally tired of winter and long hours, accepted, and the rest is hanami history!
I learned at our hanami that companies hire new employees to start in early April, that schools all start in early April, and that people retire in April. One of the staff folks told me that often the first company event someone goes to is a hanami, and the last company event is hanami, so hanami marks big transition points around here.
I may sound cynical, but I know a good picnic when I eat at one, and our picnic was great!
Of course, I'm going out again today, because hanami season is short, and after that a picnic is just a picnic. And need I remind you to thank the kami it's spring?