In Japanese tradition, O hanami is the contemplation of cherry trees (sakura) full bloom. It literally means “viewing flowers”.
When spring starts, the fragile petals of the sakura trees will colour the streets with their shades of pink and the sight of this wonderful show will surely make anyone’s romantic heart sing and makes you rethink about your definition of beauty.
From early March to late April, Japanese sakura are blooming from South to North. The window to witness their full bloom is very short in each city, between 3 and 5 days top, before the petals get too fragile and are scattered away by the wind. The Japanese people even created the Sakura Weather map, a kind of weather forecast of the upcoming blooming sakura in each region!
A BIT OF HISTORY…
From philosophers to warlords, the contemplation of such a natural event has risen over time as something somehow metaphysical: o hanami.
This tradition of Japanese people gathering under the blooming sakura with food and sake comes actually from a very old tradition, some says it started at the Nara period (710-784) and was imported by Chinese, some others says it’s genuinely Japanese and started in the IIIrd Century. Anyway, it’s old. And in Japanese culture, sakura is the metaphor for beauty and death and renewal. Since it starts right in the beginning of spring, it was time back then to pray the kami (the spirits from the Shinto religion) for a good year harvest – sometimes Japanese people even offered sake to the kami to make sure the rice they were about to plant would turn into a good, abundant harvest.
Even the samurai (the warriors back in the feudal Japan) chose the sakura flower as a symbol. Since the sakura flower will immediately fall after blooming, without even withering, it was a reminder of the samurai’s conditions who’s most likely to die when he’s young and just finished his combat training. The Japanese warriors wouldn’t have time to get old, and their duty was to be fearless towards their upcoming death and to die with an honourable and pure soul – the sakura was therefore used as a symbol of their purity and short lives.
LET’S (RE)DEFINE BEAUTY
It is common knowledge that Japan has a peculiar taste for beauty and details. You just have to take a look at the Japanese varied cuisine to know what I’m talking about. Everything is exquisite, the attention focused on every detail to make it look pretty or cute (or let’s face it, most of the time, it’s both.)
Hanami is the perfect beauty made by Mother Nature. The reminder of how ephemeral life is. That life doesn’t last. And that the beauty of it is actually its ephemeral state. We wouldn’t pay this much attention to blooming sakura if they were blooming for a long time. The fact that it’s lasting just a few days makes it even more beautiful, yet magical.
So is life. Short and unique, and this is the exact reason why it’s so precious and beautiful. Life is, when you think of it, a succession of bright and happy moments which remains as such because they’re frozen in time. What makes a memory vivid for our mind is that it already belongs to the past. The happiness that lies within it has already gone, and the nostalgia is somehow subliming the moment. What doesn’t last is what’s the most beautiful. The prism of the past changes things, adding bright colours, and deeper feelings.
As well, it’s also way easier to enjoy something when you know it won’t last. Carpe diem is more reachable when the moment is supposed to fade away soon. You take a deep breath, your senses are more sensitive and every breeze in your hair, every sakura flower, every cloud in the sky will look as a bloody work of art.
Magic, beauty and the inner meaning of the world would seem all of a sudden reachable by your own hands.
This is why Japanese people are gathering for the sakura full blooming. They’re celebrating life with music, tea ceremony, food, sake and laughter.
That’s what o hanami is all about. Understanding the fragility of life – it could be blown in the wind like a sakura petal anytime.
MONO NO AWARE – AM I ADDICTED TO THE EPHEMERAL?
I’m thinking a lot about the ephemeral for the past two years. It seems that this notion of never-lasting has been somehow a major point in my travels. The fact actually that the places I went to, the people I met on the way, the experiences I had, the fact that all of that was taking place in the faraway country of New Zealand that I would be able to visit only for a year made every experience more intense and painted with magic.
That’s actually interesting that the Japanese have a specific expression for this peculiar sensitivity towards the ephemeral: Mono no Aware (物の哀れ). It’s this awareness of transience and the delicate sadness involved by witnessing those bright moments of beauty fade away and suddenly belonging to the past. It actually has nothing to do with our Latin Carpe Diem (Seize the day) or Memento Mori (Remember that you’ll die) which implies action and reaction whereas Mono no Aware is just about enjoying and contemplating those magical, ephemeral moments.
I’ve become addicted to that intense feeling. I need those magical moments to thrive. I need those magical experiences to feel free. But what’s mandatory to feel this feeling is… the ephemeral. An acute sense of never-lasting.
Does it mean that my happiness and my well-being are depending on movement, change and never-lasting? Fair enough. But how can one thrive if nothing’s never steady?
If I’m blooming like a sakura, I might soon be blown and scattered in the wind. Unbearably light as a petal.
But there’s something else to remember about o hanami, the blooming won’t last, that’s a fact. But they’re going to bloom again the following year in that never-ending dance of the renewal of nature. Beauty doesn’t last. Neither does magic.
Until the next bright and coloured moment that will make you feel alive and free happen.