It is actually an easy question. Hanami is just cherry blossom viewing. At least, cherry blossom viewing is at the heart of this Japanese tradition, but the term doesn't do the ritual justice. Hanami is so much more. It can be an almost festival-like atmosphere, or an intimate gathering of friends. It can be a work outing or a date. Yes, hanami is cherry blossom viewing, but how you hanami is completely up to you.
Cherry blossom viewing means different things to different people. One typical style to celebrate the season is to drink and eat with your coworkers under the trees. Tradition dictates that the youngest members of a company go out early to claim the best spot and wait for their elders to show up. Drinking ensues. A lot of people simply get together with friends and do the same thing. I've seen elaborate tables made of cardboard boxes, covered with beer cans, or a keg for the company to ceremoniously down before the night is done.A lot of prep works goes into a good hanami party. These guys are doing the dirty work to make the magic of drinking and cherry blossoms come to life. Full size
Others will bring their families and may enjoy a picnic or might buy some takoyaka or yakisoba, Japanese festival food, from one of the vendors who sets up at hot spot hanami areas. You are likely to see plenty of young couples on dates and amateur photographers as well, especially at busier places.
I got off work a bit early one day and decided to take the train to Ueno. Ueno Park, surrounded by Ueno Zoo and several world class museums is one of the more famous cherry blossom viewing areas in Tokyo. It was a busy day, but that adds more to the tradition than it takes away. After all, hanami isn't just about the cherry blossoms, it is about people enjoying them.
Sure, some of the comforts we are used to simply aren't available, but the scenery at a hanami party is tough to beat. Full size
Ueno Park is well deserving of its reputation for great cherry blossom viewing. Full size
The first thing that struck me was just how oriented the park was towards cherry blossom viewing. I've been to Ueno many times before, but it never occurred to me that it was designed with hanami in mind, but the arches of flowers the cherry trees made over the walking paths left little doubt. It was overwhelming. Viewing isn't really a good term for what you do with the cherry blossoms. It gives the impression you look at them from afar and appreciate their beauty. In Ueno, you walk among them. You are surrounded on all sides and above by light pink sakura petals.
Of course after you look up at the cherry trees for a while, you'll start to notice the people. There were plenty of office workers sitting down together and drinking of course. I noticed the occasional kimono. No shortage of couples, young and old. Families and friends. Everyone was enjoying themselves, most people with food and drinks. Ueno has a shortage of stands to buy refreshments at, but that didn't stop people from enjoying a bite to eat and a kanpai with friends. It is a wonderful atmosphere. Everyone is there for the beautiful trees, but everyone is enjoying them exactly the way they want to.
There are always parties on a good day for hanami, but most people relax, take pictures and enjoy the blossoms at their own pace. Full size
I chose to enjoy the cherry blossoms by wandering around the park and snapping some pictures. It is a lovely time of year in Japan when the cherry blossoms come out, and it was especially nice the day I visited Ueno. A mild spring day with a cool breeze. Perfect.
I've never seen things get out of hand at a hanami hot spot, but it's nice to know there is security there just in case. Full size
Groups of friends will spend a long time under a good sakura tree, drinking and eating well into evening. Full size
After a couple rounds of the park, I called it a night and took the train back home. The blossoms lasted a few more days, then they were nothing but a mess on the ground to sweep up, but not before they were enjoyed by an entire nation.
Yeah, the mountains are amazing. I like it in the city too though. The atmosphere is half the fun.
I LOVE hanami. I think the best places to go are outside the city though. If you can make it to the mountains, it is amazing.