Ohanami, a picnic for cherry blossoms

pink bike at tokyo ohanami picnicIn Japan, the blooming of flowers is cause for national celebration. When the cherry trees bloom, everyone parties. It’s called ohanami, the viewing of honorable flowers. Soccer moms and bike messengers alike pack picnics, spread out blankets and drink under a snowfall of petals. I partied with them all when my trip to Japan coincided with cherry blossom season.

ohanami picnic in Chiba

I picnicked in a playground with suburban moms and and their toddlers (and one teacup puppy) as the first flowers of the year popped open. While the kids played, the moms unpacked bentos of homemade food, carefully separated by plastic wrap within each container. We sipped sweet plum wine poured from tetra packs: it looked and tasted like the Japanese equivalent of white zinfandel. They giggled and questioned me about my American boyfriend--why I was in Japan, and where was he? Sharing food under the cherry blossoms, I felt at ease with them in spite of how little of each other’s language we understood.


ohanami picnic with tokyo bike messengers
At the height of the season, bike messengers invited me to their ohanami under a huge canopy of blossoms in a downtown park. Every way you looked, the ground was covered with picnic blankets and flower petals. The white blossoms and black branches popped against a backdrop of overcast sky. Bike fanatics arrived in waves as they finished a pirate-and-cherry-blossom themed scavenger hunt. They added their tricked-out bikes to the glittering candy colored pile, and sat down to sip beer out of seasonal pink cans. As the day wore on the group got drunk and rowdy, and we took turns going to the convenience store to load up on flower-themed junk food.

Everywhere I went in Japan, I found myself drinking and making friends under flowering trees. Taking part in a national flower party was a foreign experience, but cherry blossom picnics conjure nostalgia for my own childhood in the Pacific Northwest. Wild cherry trees in the woods by my house signalled the beginning of spring, and my mom took us every year to eat boiled eggs on a red blanket beneath flowering trees on the University of Washington campus. Now sweet memories of that month in Japan make ohanami picnics doubly special to me. I won’t let a season pass without packing a picnic and viewing some flowers.


flowering wild cherry tree at my childhood home

Here is a recipe for an ohanami snack.