Falling on the 20th or 21st of March each year, Vernal Equinox Day, also known as Shunbun no Hi marks the first day of spring in Japan. Gone are the cold winters, and from the branches of bald trees, cherry blossoms begin to bloom. A public holiday in Japan, Shunbun no Hi is a day for family and friends to gather together and welcoming the arrival of Japan’s favorite season.
The Origins of Shunbun no Hi
Today, Shunbun no Hi is a secular holiday, but it in fact has its roots in Shintoism. Originally a day of prayer at temples and shrines, as well as visitations to grave sites of loved ones to pay homage to ancestors, Shunbun no Hi was primarily a religious day. However, gradual separation of religion from the state in postwar years has made Shunbun no Hi a regular public holiday without any religious connotations. Even so, there are likely people today who still like to pay the temple and their ancestors a visit on this day, sweeping gravestones and leaving offerings. To farmers, Shunbun no Hi is significant as a day of prayer and wishes for good fortune and a bountiful harvest of crops that will soon grow.
Celebrating Spring with Cherry Blossoms and Hanami
For the majority of city-folk and those who do not observe any religion, Shunbun no Hi is the perfect day to go out and bask in the beauty of nature. The end of March to early April is when sakura season rolls around, and to many Japanese, cherry blossom viewing, or hanami, is a must.
People young and old will flock to parks with picnic baskets and drinks in tow, to sit under the cherry blossom trees in the company of family and friends. At full bloom, the parks are painted pink, and the view really fills one with hope and anticipation for wonderful new beginnings.
It’s not unusual for people to spend their entire day at the park doing hanami. There’s a special joy in watching the delicate pink petals rain down from above, though they’re a reminder that the cherry blossoms unfortunately don’t last very long- only about a week or so. Perhaps it’s exactly that fleeting beauty that makes hanami all the more special.
Friends, Family, Food
Hanami isn’t just about looking at cherry blossoms, the company you share is equally important, along with food that brings us all together. Favorite spring treats that are often present at hanami parties at the park are dango and shiratama, sweet dumplings made from rice flour and accompanied with sweet bean paste, and bento boxes filled with maki sushi rolls.
Beer is also a staple at hanami events- there are no rules in Japan against drinking at public parks. And when there’s beer, there has to be karaage, or Japanese style fried chicken- crispy, tender, and great for sharing!
Shunbun no Hi may have drifted from its original religious roots, but it definitely holds a special place in the hearts of many. While current situations make it more difficult to go out, we can still keep the spirit of spring alive and appreciate spending this special time of year with our loved ones. So eat, drink, and be merry, because spring is here!