A palpable wave of excitement sweeps across Japan this time each year as cherry blossoms burst forth signaling the arrival of spring. These iconic blooms are beloved not just for their delicate beauty and sweet fragrance, but because they last for such a short time—typically only a day or two before the pale pink petals start fluttering to the ground.
To celebrate this special time, residents forgo their usual daily routines to sit beneath canopies of blooms with friends and family to enjoy the ephemeral beauty as part of a tradition called hanami, or “flower viewing.” An essential part of any viewing party is the colorful hanami bentos, specially prepared picnic boxes brimming with the colorful bounty of the season. Seasonal vegetables and savory treats (especially ones that are pink and orange like salmon, shrimp, carrot and kabocha) are favored because they reflect the pastel palette of the petals. Asparagus, lettuce, fiddleheads ferns and other verdant veggies provide a lovely contrast.
After sunset, lanterns illuminate the branches so the festivities can continue into the night. I was truly touched by the unrestrained love for the moment that hanami represents. It’s not just about stopping to smell the flowers, but to fully enjoy the fleetingness of the moment, with those most special to you.
Although cherry blossoms may not be as abundant where you are, it is easy to experience the joy of hanami at home, in any season, by packing up a blanket and some favorite treats to share with your favorite people.
Here is a recipe my dear friend Nami Onodera gave me for one of the most popular bento items, temari sushi, or sushi balls, which are fun to make and delicious to eat.
3 cups prepared sushi rice
3 Tablespoons sugar
3 Tablespoons rice vinegar
Assorted toppings of your choice, such as:
Cucumber, sliced thinly lengthwise and lightly salted
Thinly sliced smoked salmon
Thinly sliced sashimi filets
Thinly sliced roast beef
Assorted garnishes like thinly chopped scallion, wasabi, sesame seeds, salmon caviar, tobiko
Mix the sugar and vinegar together in a small bowl until dissolved and mix with the prepared sushi rice. Cut a small piece of plastic food wrap (8"x 8") and place the topping of your choice in the center. Place 1/3 cup of the sushi rice on top. Lift the plastic wrap and contents, then gently tighten and twist plastic to make a compact ball shape. Unwrap slowly and set the sushi ball aside and add any additional toppings or garnishes. Repeat with the rest of the rice and place in a sturdy bento or other decorative box. Enjoy!
You can also make your own sakura “blossoms” to use as a garnish by cutting thin slices of daikon, using a small flower cookie cutter to create the shape, and placing the pieces in diluted beet juice until they are tinted pink.