The Japanese Table
A Cherry Blossom Picnicby Ayao Okumura
The first mention of cherry blossoms (sakura) in Japanese literature was made in the ancient chronicle Kojiki, or record of ancient matters, completed in 712 A.D.
According to the twelfth volume of the Kojiki, a compilation of oral accounts of the origins of Japan, during the reign of the Emperor Richu (400-405), a banquet was held on two boats floating in a pond on the palace grounds. The emperor was on one boat and the empress on the other, when a petal from a cherry tree flowering out of season drifted and alighted upon the sake cup the emperor was holding. The tree was later found, and a branch was broken off and presented to him. Delighted by the blossoms, he immediately renamed his palace the Iware Palace of Young Cherry Blossoms. Thus from antiquity, cherry blossoms have been regarded as a symbol of the prosperity of Japan's imperial family.
In very early times, people went into the mountains to worship under the cherry blossoms and gaze at their beauty. It was from around the Nara period (710-794) that cherry trees supposedly were transplanted to areas of human habitation and hanami (flower-viewing) parties were held; even at that time, however, cherry blossoms were not as popular as plum blossoms. Man'yoshu, a famous anthology of waka poetry compiled in the eighth century, includes 118 poems dealing with the theme of plum blossoms and only 40 poems on the theme of cherry blossoms. In the Heian period (794-1185), however, this proportion was reversed, as the flowers mentioned in poetry came to refer predominantly to cherry blossoms.
Communing with the Gods
Special occasions for viewing the flowers also became popular. Such observation, however, was not simply to enjoy the beauty of the flowers, but involved ancient folk divination practices for predicting the rice harvest by examining the way the cherry trees bloomed. The "sa" in sakura referred to the god of grain, and "kura" meant the dwelling of the god. Reflecting the beliefs of the farmers, the sakura was thus revered as a divine tree.
People from all levels of society came to take food and drink with the farmers and to view the cherry blossoms; the custom of eating, drinking, singing and dancing perhaps evolved as a way of entertaining the god of grain believed to dwell within the trees.
During the rule of the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), many grand hanami parties were held; extravagant gatherings in the Yoshino hills in present-day Nara prefecture were particularly historically memorable. The jikiro, containers used to carry food, used by Hideyoshi at a famous party held in 1598 at Daigoji temple in Kyoto have been preserved, although we do not know what foods they held.
In Higashiyama Yuraku-zu ("excursion to Higashiyama"), one of the scenes depicted in Rakuchu Rakugai-zu Byobu (screen paintings of scenes in and around Kyoto), which dates from the early Edo period (1603-1868), people are shown eating and drinking with their sagejubako (portable picnic boxes) spread before them under cherry trees in full bloom – a scene closely resembling the spring hanami parties held today. Also shown in the same painting are cooks preparing carp sashimi, from fish caught directly from a pond built especially for the occasion, while waiters carry food to the guests - thus we see the long history of serving and dressing fresh fish.
Sagejubako used for such occasions are called bento, and have drawers that hold food to enjoy with sake. They were originally equipped with chopsticks, sake cups and flasks, and small plates for four or five people. Such picnic sets could be carried anywhere, enabling people to enjoy a portable feast wherever they liked.
The bento in sagejubako shown here is filled with foods made from recipes taken from a cookbook of the Kyowa era (1801-1803). The top tier contains slices of kasutera kamaboko (a type of rolled egg), kamaboko (fish paste loaf) made from abalone entrails, boiled young ayu fish, simmered young bluefish roe, simmered bamboo shoots, warabi (bracken)and hijiki seaweed. The second tier features sushi made with small sea bream and simmered flounder. Hirame (flounder or flatfish) and sawara (Spanish mackerel) sashimi fill the third tier. The fourth tier offers sweets. A separate set of boxes consists of grilled rice balls and ohitashi, or blanched wild vegetables such as yomena (aster) and tsukushi (field horsetail).
The picnic lunch of Japanese tradition features dishes made with ingredients of the season, and the foods included in bento are prepared so that they are still tasty even when eaten cold. The rice is of the glutinous Japonica type. Also included are simmered and broiled side dishes prepared without oil in dashi (stock), together with seasonings that include soy sauce and mirin (sweet cooking sake) that are rich in amino acids. While some might consider such a meal to be dominated by fish ingredients, it does constitute a healthy, balanced diet.
In the past, praying for a successful harvest was the main reason for gathering and enjoying such picnics under the cherry blossoms. Today, hanami are more likely to offer the chance to relax among friends, family or fellow employees, while sharing mutual hopes for good health and prosperity.
Ayao Okumura was born in 1937 in Wakayama Prefecture. As professor at Kobe-Yamate University, he is a specialist in traditional Japanese cuisine. Professor Okumura is also the owner of a cooking studio, Douraku-tei, and is known for his authentic reproductions of historic Japanese dishes and menus. He has authored various texts, including Himiko no Shokutaku (Yoshikawa Kobunkan).