Spring is a beautiful time of year. Spring might soon be done for the year, but we are always striving to learn Japanese! And there’s always next spring. Let’s hope by then, COVID-19 is gone and we’re allowed to travel again. Why not prepare ourselves for our next Japanese spring holiday?
Other than booking flights and accommodation, equip yourself with some Japanese words for Spring! You’re a scroll away from a list of essential spring words in the Japanese language!
The first word on the list is haru (春). What’s more essential than the Japanese word for “spring”? I love the spring season (haru no kisetsu, 春の季節). Blooming flowers take over the whole landscape. The specific term for that is haru no hana (春の花), which means “spring flowers”.
When it’s the beginning of spring (harusaki, 春先), we get to say goodbye to puffy jackets. They’re replaced with shades of pink and yellow, just like the colours of spring (or shunshoku, 春色).
The best part for the kids is the haruyasumi (春休み), spring holiday! But that’s not the first thing that lets us know the change of season. It’s the haruichiban (春一番), the first storm of spring. Be careful of the spring winds (harukaze, 春風), they’re quite strong!
When we think of spring, we think of sakura (桜). Cherry blossoms are the unofficial flower of Japan because the connection between the two is so strong.
There are so many types of sakura trees in Japan. One iconic one is the shidarezakura (枝垂れ桜), the weeping cherry blossom trees. Locals and foreigners alike explore the country looking for them. It’s as popular as viewing cherry blossoms at night, or yozakura (夜桜).
The sakurazensen (桜前線, cherry blossom front) moves northward as the warmer weather hits Japan at different times. Because of that, the flowers don’t bloom at the same time.
At the end of sakura season, you’ll see hazakura (葉桜). These are sakura leaves that signify the end of the blooming season. But before that, you’ll get a grand farewell with a blizzard of falling cherry blossoms known as sakurafubuki (桜吹雪).
We know the name of the cherry blossom flower, but what is “flower” in Japanese? That’s hana (花). The most popular term using this word is hanami (花見) to refer to cherry blossom viewing. This is an activity where groups of people lay out a mat under the cherry trees. Usually, there’s alcohol involved. Drinking starts as early as noon. Heck, you might even see locals with a can of beer in the morning.
During a hanafubuki (花吹雪), hanabira (花びら, flower petals) fall from the trees. Every street would be filled with flower petals. It’s as beautiful as when they’re still on the trees.
One word that’s interesting using the word “hana” is hanagasumi (花霞). This refers to the appearance of flowers from afar like it’s white mist.
If you’re a huge cherry blossom enthusiast like me, you’d want to keep an eye out for the mankai (満開). This refers to the full bloom of the cherry blossoms. You can use this term for other flowers but it’s commonly used for sakura.
During a mankai, all the trees are full of flowers. There’s nothing quite like a full bloom scenery.
So how do you know when the cherry blossoms are going to bloom? Check the kaikayosou (開花予想), of course. This is the blooming forecast that’s broadcasted on the news and online. Plan your exact dates for your spring trip based on the forecast. You’ll get the best chances at viewing cherry blossoms at its peak.
We mentioned spring holiday earlier for the kids. There’s one public holiday that the adults can look forward to: shunbun (春分), Vernal Equinox Day. It usually falls on March 20th or 21st. This holiday marks the beginning of spring astrologically.
This day is special because it’s when daytime and nighttime are exactly the same length. There’s a special way to celebrate this day, but that’s an article all on its own.
Not all of spring is a holiday. You also have the start of the new school term in spring, which is shingakki (新学期). When school starts up again in spring, you’ll be greeted with a wonderful landscape of cherry blossoms. What a way to start the semester.
Spring is beautiful, but it’s not perfect. Some don’t like this season because of kafun (花粉, pollen). With the blooming flowers come the powdery substance. Not everyone’s immune to that.
In fact, some prefer the other seasons because spring gives them hay fever. That’s called kafunsho (花粉症) in Japanese. Having allergies is not the best way to celebrate a season, is it?
If you haven’t noticed yet, a lot of the spring words are related to flowers. Isn’t that what we love about spring, anyway? Whether the good or the bad, the warming up of the weather is a good sign for everyone. After all, summer comes after! Keep an eye out for essential Japanese summer words!
I bet you’ve heard about the Japanese sakura (桜, cherry blossoms). The flower and everything that comes with it takes up a huge part of the Japanese tradition that is extremely prominent to this very day. When it’s almost “sakura season” — a phrase that you often hear in Japan — every local has some sort of preparation to welcome the blooming of these pale pink blossoms. Foreigners that come to Japan have adopted similar practices during the sakura season.
What does matter is that sakura is a thing of the past, present and future of Japan. Let’s delve into everything you need to know about sakura — including the significance and practices that come along with it.
What is Sakura?
So what exactly is sakura? The word “sakura” is the Japanese name for a specific type of flower that grows on cherry blossom trees. Some might argue that it’s not any type of cherry blossom; it’s only the prunus serrulata, which is the Japanese cherry that is native to Japan as well as Korea and China. In the eyes of the Japanese, these cherry blossoms are the most beautiful Japanese flowers.
Unlike the cherry trees, cherry blossom trees don’t produce fruit but instead bloom beautiful flowers. Blooming only once a year, there are quite a few types of Japanese cherry blossom trees spread all across the country. One particular variety that’s the most popular is the Somei Yoshino, a type of natural hybrid that produces pale pink flowers. Sakura became such an iconic image for the country that some people even call it Japan’s informal national flower.
What does sakura symbolise in Japan?
The blossoming of these delicate and radiant flowers doesn’t just symbolise the beginning of spring; sakura holds quite the significance, with a rich history and identity in Japanese culture.
Initially, sakuras were used to predict the year’s harvest. Farmers kept an eye out for the blooming of sakuras to indicate to them the ideal time to plant their crops. Throughout time, it has become the representation of the Wabi-sabi philosophy — a Japanese aesthetics that centers itself on the acceptance of imperfection and temporariness while acknowledging the beauty in them — as well as Shinto ideals of impermanence and renewal.
The blooming of the sakuras symbolises human mortality to many Japanese people; just like the flower, it is beautiful and brilliant during its strongest bloom but withers when the time comes, reflecting its fragility. There’s a Buddhist notion of “mono no aware” which has a loose meaning of bringing awareness to the impermanence of things which leads to the heightening awareness of their beauty — such notion is directed to the fragile sakura blooms. This reminds us of how short and precious life is.
Other countries have the start of their school year in autumn, but the Japanese school year begins in April — during the cherry blossom season. That’s because sakura is a symbol of good luck and hope.
Not only is it a cultural significance in Japan, but sakura is also a huge influence in the economy as well. Because of its deep roots in Japanese tradition, shops of various kinds fill their shelves with sakura-themed products — from food and drinks to wares and clothing.
A lot of Japanese art that features sakura in them carries the various symbolisms of the flower. This huge significance of sakura in Japan also brings about countless activities, events and festivals that centers around the blooming of these cherry blossoms.
When do sakuras bloom?
The “sakura season” — which refers to when the sakuras are in bloom and the sign of the start of spring — can be quite random. Regardless, it is such an anticipated season each year that there are tons of cherry blossom forecasts months before the expected bloom! This tracking of the blooming progression of the cherry trees is called the “sakura zensen” which translates to the cherry blossom front.
The sakuras are only in full bloom for about a week or so — adding to their magnificence and exclusivity. It doesn’t all bloom at once, though. The magical bloomings of these pink flowers are spread across a few months, from March to early May, throughout the diverse landscape of the country’s main islands. The Hawaii of Japan, Okinawa, is the first part of Japan to see the blooms of sakura in January, though. Then comes Tokyo, the capital city, that will be graced by the sakura blooms. The cherry blossom trees in northern Japan, Hokkaido, are the last ones to bloom — they’re expected to be in full bloom in May.
Because it’s so spread out across a few months, travellers wouldn’t have to worry so much about catching the perfect flight for the ideal week of sakura blooming — whichever time you are in Japan, as long as it’s within the months of March to May, you’re bound to see some pink blooms on your trip!
The “hanami” culture
Hanami (花見) is the activity of having a picnic underneath the cherry blossom trees, and it also has a long history behind it. This blossom viewing activity initially started way back in the Nara period, around 710-794. It only became a huge festivity when Emperor Saga and the Imperial Court started throwing picnics and parties, especially for flower-viewing in the Heian period, around 794-1185.
The Japanese people picked up this activity rather eagerly, and as the years go by, it became a Japanese tradition where every local celebrates every year. Regardless of social status and hierarchy — from samurais to commoners — all of the people of Japan would go out and celebrate the blooms of these pale pink flowers.
This hanami culture is extremely present to this very day. And that’s not even the best part — even people of other cultures and traditions practice this social activity each spring in Japan. While it started as a local Japanese cultural event to observe the symbolic sakura during their short but beautiful blooming period, it is now a not-to-be-missed tradition of spring in The Land of the Rising Sun — regardless of race, religion and background. You’ll see groups of Japanese as well as foreigners under the blooming sakura trees with picnic mats and cans of alcoholic beverages, but what’s even more amazing is that in recent years, these groups start to intermingle and socialise with each other! Who would’ve thought that pale pink blossoms would bring people together when any other occasion wouldn’t be able to?
Where to hanami?
Of course, the question is then: where is the best place to take part in hanami? The short and simple answer is, anywhere in Japan! The country is flooded with cherry blossom trees, so many that you’ll come across at least a few on just your walk from your accommodation to the station.
But if you’re looking for the ultimate hanami experience, there are a few go-to locations for the all-out hanami culture.
Tokyo gets one of the first few blooms in all of Japan, so travellers tend to stop by the capital city when seeking out cherry blossoms. For first-timers of hanami in Tokyo, get the full atmosphere at Yoyogi Park — it’s arguably the best spot to drink till you’re drunk from midday while bathing in the pinks of the sakura. It’s a huge park in the center of the city — you’ll be able to go anywhere from here; maybe to a bar to continue your drinking adventures?
Ueno Park is another one that I highly recommend; it can get quite crowded and overpacked on the weekends, so the best time on weekdays to have a bit of breathing room.
The next biggest city in Japan is Osaka, which also has its fair share of awesome hanami locations. Kill two birds with one stone by heading over to the Osaka Castle Park — not only will you get your hanami game on, but you’ll also be able to sightsee and visit the famous Osaka Castle. Can a hanami experience get any better than that?
Coming from the biggest sakura enthusiast ever, trust me that you’re better off searching for a local park nearby for the most authentic hanami — my favourite spot in all of Japan is a small river just by my house, with walking paths next to the stream and cherry blossom trees lining the whole stretch.
Sakuras aren’t just beautiful pale pink flowers that take over the landscape of Japan in the months of spring — they have quite a background and significance in the Japanese culture. From being the symbol of life to a celebration that brings people together, there is no doubt that these cherry blossoms are here to stay and continue to dominate the spring season of the Land of the Rising Sun — and they’re more than welcome to; we all love a full, blossoming sakura spring!
In our second episode of Nihongo Master podcast, we looked at Japanese festivals — one for each season, introducing the background, practices, and traditions; and talking about some of the key festival language.
Japan’s festivals follow nature, an essential part of Japanese traditions. There’s always something going on every month – whether it’s a wild, dancing celebration, or a time of paying sombre respects.
Let’s have a look at what we covered in EP2 of NM podcast!
Obon (お盆) is a summer festival that takes place from August 13th to August 16th every year. This Japanese summer festival is all about family — reflecting on one’s family roots while welcoming back the ancestors’ spirits to the world of the living. Obon is a little like Halloween — plenty of old Japanese ghost stories are set during this time of year.
There are a total of 4 days of the festival:
The first day is the practice of mukaebi (迎え火), lighting welcoming fires on the doorstep to guide the returning spirits home on the first day of the festival. There’s also the custom of visiting family graves known as ohakamairi (お墓参り). Some families would also decorate the altars with offerings like flowers, fruits and sweets.
The second and third days are for kuyo (供養) — a tradition of holding a memorial service for the dead. Following that, families have a traditional lunch together called the shōjin ryōri (精進料理), a fully vegetarian cuisine developed in the temples of Japan.
The fourth and final day concludes the Obon festival with okuribi (送り火), a ceremonial bonfire to see off the spirits — takes place. Sometimes, there might even be bon-odori (盆踊り) dances to go along with it. You’ll also often see floating paper lanterns with messages attached to them by the river.
Autumn Festival: Tsukimi (月見)
For the autumn festival, we have tsukimi (月見): “moon viewing”. It’s a traditional ceremony to express gratitude as well as pray for a successful seasonal harvest. Some believe that this Japanese festival dates as far back as the Nara period of 710 to 794 AD. Initially, Tsukimi was a moon-viewing party for the aristocratic elite. Now, during this autumn festival, some people visit shrines and burn incense, as well as make food offerings of their harvest to Shinto gods.
Decorations are quite important for tsukimi, and the most common one is decorating a vase with susuki (ススキ, pampas grass) because it is believed to protect the area from evil and acts as an offering to the moon god.
While dango (団子, white dumplings) are often used for decoration as well it’s not only for that purpose — it’s custom to eat them during this festive season. There’s a special type of dango during tsukimi, and that’s tsukimi dango (月見団子).
If you’ve heard of the “Man on the Moon”, the Japanese’s tale is slightly different — they say the pattern of the moon’s craters look like an image of a rabbit pounding rice into mochi (もち) rice cake paste with a mallet. I told the full myth of it during the podcast — give it a listen if you’re interested!
Winter Festival: Shougatsu (正月)
Our winter festival is something we all celebrate our own various ways, but the Japanese call it shougatsu (正月), the Japanese New Year festival. The festivities start well before the first of January and run through January 7th or even January 15th for some regions! Most companies and businesses are usually closed from December 29th till January 4th.
The traditions of Shougatsu are a combination of expressing gratitude for the past year and wishes for health and prosperity for the upcoming year. Many people travel back to their hometowns to spend time with family and loved ones.
The most important practice of Shougatsu is hatsumode — it refers to the first shrine or temple visit of the year to pray for good luck. The prayer involves providing an offering — coins are tossed into offertory boxes. Then, visitors can draw a fortune paper.
On January 2nd, the Imperial Palace is opened to the public — one out of two days in the year — to pay respects to Japan’s royal household as well as to hear the Emperor addressing the crowd of well-wishers.
Spring Festival: Hanami (花見)
Last but not least, our final Japanese festival is the spring festival, hanami (花見), which translates to “flower viewing”. Instead of appreciating the moon, this spring matsuri is all about appreciating the blooming cherry blossoms.
It only became a huge festivity when Emperor Saga and the Imperial Court started throwing picnics and parties especially for flower-viewing in the Heian period. initially, sakura (桜) )were used to predict the harvest cycles for that year. Throughout time, it became to represent so much more — but I won’t spill it here; you’d have to listen to the podcast to know more!
Sakura season isn’t a set period of time every year — it constantly changes and also depends on the exact location in Japan. Hanami is a much-awaited festival, so much that there are forecasts for it — predictions for the blooming are covered on the national news!
The Japanese people set down their mats under the blooming sakura and chat the afternoon away while appreciating the beauty of the flowers.
In episode 2, we dropped quite a bit of vocab in it. I mean, we did go through 4 major traditional festivals, so it’s kind of a given. Here are the words we used, for listeners who’d want a visual list:
That concludes our summary of 4 seasonally-inspired, historically-rich, culturally-significant Japanese festivals which show the breadth of the culture here. They show how the Japanese respect nature, how they view life and death, and how close to their hearts they hold the age-old tradition of getting very, fantastically, stupendously drunk.
If you want to know exactly what I’m talking about, what are you waiting for? Pop on your phone, open up Spotify or Apple Podcast and search “Nihongo Master” to listen to our podcast series!