The History of Hanami might be much longer than you thought: long before Emperor Saga held the first cherry blossom viewing party in 812, the flowers were revered in Japan as representing a goddess. Japan’s oldest historical record, the Kojiki—which dates from the 700s—describes a beautiful mythical goddess that was the guardian deity of Mount Fuji.
The word ‘sakura’ itself appeared in the Nara Period (710-794) and is contained in Japan’s oldest existing collection of poetry, the Manyoshu.
‘Sa‘ was written as the word ‘god’ (神), and particularly referred to the god of rice paddies. ‘Kura‘ represented a pedestal used to honor a god with offerings of food and sake. When cherry blossoms bloomed, it was a sign that the god had come down from the mountains and it was time to plant rice.
© Photo by Hiroshige
One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, Kiyomizu Hall and Shinobazu Pond at Ueno (上野清水堂不忍ノ池)
Japanese Culture Blossoms
At this time, hanami (which literally means looking at flowers) was done in the Chinese tradition with the viewing of plum (ume, 梅) blossoms. One hundred years into the Heian Period (794-1185), Japan ended the practice of sending envoys to China to study its culture and technologies, opening the way for Japan to foster its own culture and set the premises of the history of hanami.
Emperor Saga held the first sakura-viewing party, complete with food, music and poetry writing, after being struck by the beauty of a particular cherry tree at Jishu Shrine, which is currently part of the Kiyomizu Temple complex. From 831, it became a regular event at the imperial court and cherry blossom hanami spread among the aristocratic class—the Tale of Genji includes such a scene.