Cherry blossoms in Ueno: more than 380 years of history and revelry

Cherry blossoms in Ueno: more than 380 years of history and revelry


After a long, cold winter the sight of the first cherry blossoms are a welcome sign of spring in Tokyo. Soon after the petals open to the sunlight, hordes of people come to camp out under the blossoms and one soon learns that the old saying hana yori dango (lit. “dumplings rather than flowers” – Better fill a man’s belly than his eye.) is all too true: most people spend more time drinking their fill and stuffing their bellies than contemplating the cherry blossoms. This is not a modern phenomenon, either. Hana-mi (“cherry blossom viewing”) as a yearly outing liberally laced with alcohol dates back to the Edo period.

Then, as now, one of the most popular places for this has been that part of Tokyo now known as Ueno Park. Every year during the cherry blossom season more than two million people come to the park, and on weekends there are days when more than 300,000 people pass under the cherry trees.

The start of the hana-mi custom is said to started with the Japanese nobility and date from the Nara period (710~794AD). At this time, the flower admired was the ume (Japanese plum), which had only recently arrived from China, and it was the subject of more than 100 classic poems. In contrast, the sakura (cherry blossom) had fewer adherents, only being praised in 40 poems.

People’s taste began to change during the Heian period (794~1185AD). In Kyoto, there were many cherry trees growing wild and they became popular, so much so that nobles started to plant them on the grounds of their estates. By 905AD, the cherry blossom had reversed its fortunes, taking center stage and pushing the ume to the wings – records show that the cherry blossom now had over a hundred odes dedicated to it, with the ume sinking to less than 40. By the late 1500s, amongst 134 poems about spring, almost all were about the cherry blossom, and the image of the cherry blossom being the hana (“flower”) referred to in hana-mi had become fixed.

Hana-mi comes to Edo

Cherry blossom viewing in Edo got its start in 1632, when more than 100 cherry trees were planted at Kan’ei-ji, one of two Tokugawa family funerary temples. The trees are said to have been brought to Edo from Yoshino, near Nara, by Tenkai (reputed to be quite fond of cherry blossoms), the Tendai Buddhist monk commissioned with building the temple. Thanks to this planting, Kan’ei-ji became Edo’s first cherry blossom viewing spot and started to achieve notoriety during the Kanbun period (1661~1673). However, cherry blossom viewing was still very much an activity of the nobility and warrior elite.

"Shushiki no Sakura", Kuniyoshi

“Shushiki no Sakura”, Kuniyoshi

When the 5th Shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, opened the temple grounds to the commoners of the city (but only during cherry blossom season!) in 1698, Kan’ei-ji became the most popular cherry blossom viewing area in the city. It was during this period that the custom of going on an outing for cherry blossom viewing spread from the ruling warrior class down to the commoners of Edo.

However, because Kan’ei-ji’s was the family temple of the Shogun, no music or “extravagant amusement” were allowed. The temple also banned all food and drink and all people had to leave the temple when the gates were closed at 6:00pm. Interestingly enough, it appears that the prohibition on alcohol was either not strictly enforced, or more likely, ignored by hana-mi revelers; a haiku by a famous young poet named Shushiki laments the fate of a well under a cherry tree in Kan’ei-ji:

The cherry tree beside the well, jeopardized by drunks

It appears that even then, the need to slake one’s thirst was not to be denied regardless of the rules.

Kan’ei-ji faces competition

By the Kyoho period (1716~1736) Kan’ei-ji was being eclipsed by the nearby Sumida Embankment to the east and Asukayama to the northwest. Both of these areas are still very popular hana-mi destinations to this day, and they became so in the Edo period mostly due to the efforts of the 8th Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune.



Yoshimune had cherry trees planted, beginning with 270 trees transplanted from Edo Castle’s Fuki-age, in Asukayama in 1720 and opened the area to the public so that they would have a place other than Kan’ei-ji to enjoy the cherry blossoms. Over the next dozen or so years, the number of trees transplanted here would grow to total several thousand. He also allowed alcohol, food, and music at Asukayama, and Edo’s residents delighted in being able to indulge openly.

There were already cherry trees along the Sumida Embankment, originally planted by the 4th Shogun, Tokugawa Ietsuna, but it was the additional trees planted here by Yoshimune, stretching for four nearly four kilometers from Mukojiuma to Senju, that turned the Sumida Embankment into one of Edo’s top hana-mi locations.

Food, drink, and “extravagant play” were also permitted at the Sumida Embankment, but there was another reason that it drew so many people during the hana-mi season: there was no curfew and people didn’t have to leave when it got dark. Further, geisha and courtesans of the nearby illicit prostitution districts and teahouses would come to visit the hana-mi revelers in the evenings, adding an extra appeal for the men of Edo.

Kan’ei-ji continued to be a popular hana-mi spot, but it attracted mainly smaller parties of older people or those of a more philosophical bent who would enjoy the cherry blossoms while strolling along rather than the “hana yori dango” revelers.

Hana-mi: yearly social highlight

For most Edokko (“child of Edo”), especially women and children who seldom had the opportunity to get out of the city, the hana-mi season was greatly anticipated. Since getting to Kan’ei-ji, the Sumida Embankment, or Asukayama were outside the city’s walls getting there took a long time and hana-mi were all day affairs. Special bento box lunches would be prepared, featuring rare delicacies that most would not be able to eat at other times of the year.

Both men and women also custom ordered kimonos for hana-mi, and it is said that this was the most colorful time of year – even more brilliant than New Year’s. These specially made women’s kimonos, called hanagoromo, were used to catch men’s eyes and were also strung from the branches of cherry trees with the strings from the bento boxes and used in the place of curtains – when done so, they were called kosodemaku. Flapping gently in the breezes, they would add extra color to the cherry blossom parties.

Hana-mi were a chance to cut loose and escape from the normally rigid social order of life in Edo. Commoners would dress up and pretend to be samurai, and women would dress up as men. Hana-mi were also an opportunity for members of the opposite sex to meet, with acquaintances being met and couples forming in spring and then relationships deepening in summer and fall.

For the next century and a half, cherry blossom viewing would continue to be a yearly highlight for the residents of Edokko, and while fashions and styles of clothing would change, the merry making under the blossoms of Edo’s most popular hana-mi spots would remain the same, with Kan’ei-ji being one of the top three.

From Edo to Tokyo: Kan’ei-ji reborn as Ueno Park



In 1868, the final battle of the Boshin War that led to the surrender of Edo Castle and the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate was fought at Kan’ei-ji, with the fiercest fighting taking place at the so-called “Black Gate” – not far from the police box at the entrance of the Ueno Park and next to the stairs rising from Keisei Ueno station. Artillery barrages by the Imperial troops helped rout the resisting samurai who supported the Tokugawa regime, but in the process burned the entire temple and more than 1,000 surrounding houses to the ground. After the battle, the new government closed temple grounds and no one was allowed to enter.

The former Kan’ei-ji was closed for the next three years and during that time, people were only allowed to have their hana-mi at the nearby Shinobazu Pond. However, in 1871, the Meiji government opened the park to the public for the cherry blossom viewing season and in the areas where temple buildings formerly stood, hana-mi chaya (cherry blossom viewing teahouses) were opened and the ban on food, drink, and music was lifted. Thanks to this Ueno once again became as popular as the Suimda Embankment and Asukayama for hana-mi.

After the cherry blossom viewing season, though, the former temple grounds were closed once again, and the area became overgrown and wild. There were plans to raze all remaining buildings and cherry trees and plant tea and mulberry fields and fill in Shinobazu Pond in order to make a rice paddy. The Ministry of Education decided to build a medical school and hospital on the grounds, but were convinced by a Dutchman, Dr. A.F. Baudwin that they would be better served by turning the temple grounds into a park, and so in 1873, the former Kan’ei-ji was opened to the populace as Ueno Park – Japan’s first public park.

A visit to Ueno Park now during cherry blossom season will inevitably take one along the central path leading from the entrance to the park to the fountain in the main square. Lining this path on either side are 69 cherry trees that were planted in 1969, but they are only a small fraction on the cherry trees in the Ueno: a survey in 1982 counted 929 cherry trees in the park, and more current literature places the number at 1,200 (as substantial as this is, in 1925, there were 2,400 trees in the park).

One of those trees is the 9th generation of Shushiki’s cherry tree, still beside the well and now behind a fence, keeping it safe from drunken revelers.

However, the same cannot be said for the other trees in the park, almost all of which will certainly have groups relaxing on the obligatory blue plastic “leisure sheet” beneath them. Here and there on these sheets, one can see bento boxes and half-eaten food lying forgotten next to a budding couple. Or empty cans of beer and bottles of sake scattered next to the slumped forms of men, young and old, lying passed out on the grass. Amongst it all, petals of cherry blossoms flutter down gently.

The more things change, the more things stay the same, especially during hana-mi season.