The Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival is held every year to herald the coming of spring to the Northern Hemisphere.
The festival is centuries old, going back to at least the 3rd century. Initially the festival was observed only by the nobility, but eventually became a nationwide event.
Cherry blossoms start to come in anywhere from March to May, depending on how the weather is. On the southern island of Okinawa, the cherry trees can begin to bloom as early as February!
The Cherry Blossom festival happens every April, right in the middle of all this blooming. For two weeks, people enjoy the trees at their fullest with flowers.
The blossoms are small, delicate and beautiful. Once they bloom, the tiny flowers only stay on the trees for about a week. Then they start to fall.
Some say the most special time of the Cherry Blossom Festival is when all the blossoms rain down from the trees and scatter the ground with tiny petals.
In ancient times, the blossoms would be used to divine and predict the year’s harvest. It was also the signal to farmers to begin planting their crops!
Does that remind you of another kind of weather forecasting done by the groundhog?
The cherry blossom is called sakura in Japanese and as Japan’s unofficial national flower, is one of the most recognized symbols of the country.
These lovely little flowers have come to symbolize ideas from impermanence to renewal. They represent new beginnings, and are seen as a symbol of hope.
While the trees are mostly ornamental, there are over 250 varieties of cherry trees. The most popular type is the Yoshino. Many of the trees produce a fruit which is similar to cherries, but not like the kind you see in the store.
The blossoms and leaves are edible, though!
Hanami, or Flower Watching
In Japan, people celebrate with hanami parties.
Hanami means “viewing the flowers.” And that’s what these parties are all about. Being surrounded by the beauty of the cherry tree blossoms.
The parties continue at night, too!
The trees are hung with paper lanterns or electric lights, giving everything a soft glow. The night parties are called Yakazura.
The Foods and Fun of Hanami Parties
Hanami parties are filled with song and dance, picnic food, and Japanese tea ceremonies under the branches of the cherry trees.
As the blossoms and leaves are edible, different things can be made using them. Dried blossoms and leaves are used to make tea.
During the Cherry Blossom Festival, you can find sakura ice cream! That’s right. Cherry blossom ice cream.
Picnic baskets are filled with interesting foods. Tamagoyaki is a simple and fun treat. This is a rolled egg omelet, made with sugar and soy sauce.
Mochi is another staple found during this festival. It’s a sticky, sweet rice cake. The mochi is tinted pink to match the blossoms of the trees. Sometimes the cakes are filled with ice cream, or fruit, or anko.
What Exactly is Anko?
Anko is a unique treat. Think of it like “bean jam.” Deserts are made from this red bean paste. And it’s pretty simple to make. Give it a try!
There are two varieties of anko. One is a chunky version called tsuban. And one is a smooth version called koshian. Sounds kind of like peanut butter, huh?
Both are made from adzuki beans, which are small red beans that look a little like kidney beans. They’re native to east Asia and the Himalayas.
Want to try your hand at making anko?
To make your own anko, or red bean paste, you don’t need a lot of ingredients or equipment, just patience. Dried beans take a long time to cook.
- 1 cup of adzuki beans (also called azuki beans)
- 1 to 1 ½ cups of sugar
- A pinch of salt
- Plenty of water
First things first. The beans need a good soaking.
Put them in a bowl or a pot and cover them with water. Let them sit for at least 8 hours, overnight works.
The next step is to drain the soaking water and put them in a pot. Cover the beans with at least 1-2 inches of water and put it on the stove.
Bring the water to a boil, then remove it from the heat. Cover the pan and let them sit for around 5 minutes.
This little pre-cooking step is useful for naturally bringing out the sweetness of the beans.
After the 5-minute soak, drain the beans and rinse them. Then cover the beans with water, again 1-2 inches, and bring it to a boil again.
Reduce the heat to a simmer and let them cook for about an hour. Check on them and add more water if you need to!
The beans are done when you can smoosh them easily.
Now, take the sugar and add it slowly, with the beans still over the heat. You want to add a little, stir it in so the sugar dissolves, then add a little more, and a little more, until all the sugar (or as much as you want) is mixed in.
Adding the sugar slowly like that helps the beans absorb some of the sugar, and mixing it in helps mash up the beans.
Mix it up until you are at the consistency of mashed potatoes. Then add a little bit of salt. This helps balance the sweetness of the beans and the sugar with the natural earthy flavor of the beans. Sounds weird, huh?
Let the bean paste cool down and then get creative with it! Keep anko in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen, too.
What can you use anko in?
You can eat it by itself. You can spread it on toast, just like jam. Try it on biscuits, or with fruit. Use it with yogurt and ice cream!
Or make little pancakes and spread the bean paste between them to make a pancake sandwich. This is called dorayaki in Japan!
Create your own celebration food as you celebrate the Japanese Cherry Blossom festival this year.