1. When to Hanami
The first thing to carefully choose is the date, since you want the flowers to be at their full bloom for the best view: luckily, the Japan Weather Association has you all sakura lovers close to heart and yearly releases a “Sakura Blossoming Forecast” with the dates for the full bloom in all the various areas of Japan.
The forecast is prepared by the Japan Weather Association, and an English translation is prepared by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) that also includes the average date of full bloom for the last 10 years in several regions of Japan.
2. Where & How to Hanami
Once you know the date, you'll obviously also need a place full of sakura to enjoy their flowers. Luckily for you, Japan has plenty of spots where you can enjoy the cherry blossoms, since trees abound both in parks and on riverbanks.
Beware, however: Since hanami is a popular tradition in Japan, many places will be pretty crowded—especially during the weekend. These are some useful tips to keep in mind:
• Check if you're allowed to do hanami in the first place. Some places might not allow this kind of party.
• Get there early! Popular places will be crowded, and the spots are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Sometimes people leave just a plastic ground sheet behind to save their spot, but it’s a good idea to also leave at least one person behind to protect your newfound castle. For a large group hanami, consider taking turns!
• If you’re going to a park, check the opening and closing hours. While some parks stay open until late at night, others close at sunset or sooner.
• Parks with an entrance fee might be less crowded, but make sure that the park rules allow you to bring alcohol and food inside.
• Check for toilet availability! If you stay outside for several hours, you are bound to need the lavatory sooner or later. Some parks have toilets inside, but be aware that they might get crowded and dirty. Take notice of any malls or department stores nearby, as they usually have free toilets, too.
• Pick up your garbage! This is very important: You are expected to clean after yourself, so once the party is over, collect all the leftovers and dispose of them appropriately. Some parks will have big garbage bins that you can use for this purpose.
3. What to Bring to Hanami—Basics
Now that your hanami is pretty much organized, it’s time to pack your essentials! These are the things you absolutely must not forget. Most of these objects can be bought at ¥100 stores or Don Quijote for those on a tight budget!
a) Picnic Sheet
This is the most important thing, unless you want to be eating on the ground and get dirty! These plastic sheets (often marked as a “leisure sheet,” レジャー シート) come in different sizes, so be sure to get one (or more than one!) to fit all the guests. If you end up forgetting to bring one, just enter any convenience store and buy a newspaper!
b) Foldable Chair/ Floor Cushion
Especially if it has rained in the days before the hanami or if you plan to stay after the sun sets, the ground can get cold. Consider buying a foldable stool, a foldable mat or a zabuton (written 座布団, a cushion used for sitting on the floor). For plastic stools, be sure to check how much weight they can handle!
c) Body Warmer
The weather is often still chilly (especially at night!), so don’t forget to keep your body warm! Disposable body warmers can be bought at convenience stores and pharmacies, and will give you a few hours of warmth depending on the brand. There are different kinds of body warmers: some (generally called kairo/カイロ) must be shaken to be activated and can be put into a pocket or held in your hands, while others (like on-netsu shiito/温熱シート) have adhesives to stick them on your body.
In spring in Japan you never know if it’s going to rain or be sunny. Bring an umbrella to be fully prepared in both cases!
e) Garbage Bags
As we mentioned above, you’re supposed to clean after yourself, so don’t forget garbage bags. You can buy them or use regular plastic bags you get when you shop at grocery and convenience stores.
f) Paper Cups, Plates, Disposable Cutlery/Chopsticks, Tissues (Wet & Dry)
Since one of the points of a hanami party is food (see below), don’t forget anything related to the meal: get enough plasticware for everyone, don’t forget cutlery or chopsticks depending on the food, and also remember wet and dry tissues to clean your dirty fingertips!
g) Flashlight or LED Candles
If you plan to stay after the sunset in a park, you might end up in a darker spot. Most parks forbid the use of candles in order to prevent fires, so it’s a good idea to bring a flashlight to spot any leftover trash—if your smartphone doesn’t have one, you can get a simple flashlight in any ¥100 shop. If you want to create an intimate atmosphere, consider investing in some small LED candles, which won’t get you in trouble with park security.
What to Bring to Hanami—Food & Drink
Now that you know that one of the points of hanami is enjoying food and drinks in good company, what should you eat?
Department stores carry bento specific for this seasonal event, called hanami bento. The distinction is that their colors, flavors and decorations all match the sakura season.
If you’re preparing or buying food for other people, anything that can be easily divided or shared and eaten at room temperature is a perfect choice. Some examples include: sushi rolls, cut tamagoyaki (rolled omelette), onigiri, and hanami dango (a traditional Japanese sweet related to mochi and made from rice flour, which also comes in a hanami version with three colors: pink, white and green).
For a less traditional hanami, consider salty snacks of all kinds, both Japanese and Western, like chips.
Drinks will obviously depend on the food and on the attendees' tastes.
For people who don’t drink alcohol, fruit juices are always a good option. You can also bring hot tea or coffee in a thermos to keep yourself warm! Don't forget water, and locate the nearest vending machine or convenience store in case you run out of drinks (just don't count on a vending machine to stay stocked in a popular spot!).
For alcohol lovers, common choices are wine (in this case, don’t forget a bottle opener!), beer or chu-hi (a canned mix of shochu and flavored carbonated water).
Finally, watch out for seasonal chu-hi offers, like the Sakuranbo Chu-hi by Suntory above—not to mention sakura beer, sakura cola from Kimura Drink, and even sakura Pepsi!
Now go to the nearest park and have a blast at your hanami!