Saturday, April 18, 2009

Hanami picnic in London: the best of Japanese gastronomy and aesthetics (ロンドンの花見)

The Japanese custom of hanami, enjoying the beauty of cherry blossoms, came about under the influence of China's refined Tang Dynasty in the 8th century AD. It originated as a sacred ritual for the imperial court: Shinto priests would offer sake to sakuras so as to divinate the new year's harvest.

Before too soon, the Japanese figured out that pouring sake on trees was a waste and that is how gastronomy replaced religion. By the 12th century the custom of having meals under blossoming cherry trees spread to all the walks of life of the Japanese society.

There is a philosophical meaning attached to this pastime: the empirical observation of the transience of youth and beauty allegorised by the cherry blossoming lasting but a couple of weeks a year. However, as the laconic Japanese saying goes "Hana yori dango", "Dumplings before flowers", that is, "To hell with blossoming spring flora, let's tuck it away!"

This week Victoria and Ekaterina came to visit me from Moscow. We had planned a picnic since a while ago but were very unsure about the weather. Luckily, today turned out a glorious day. We bought our Japanese grub at Rice and Wine Shop and Kulu Kulu Sushi on Brewer Street and moseyed on over to St. James's Park.

There is no set menu for hanami. Perhaps, the only seasonal entry would be hanami-dango: a skewered trio of rice flour dumplings with sweet red bean filling. For our picnic we had:
  • miso-shiru;
  • a big order of nigiri-zushi;
  • o-nigiri: nori-wrapped rice dumplings with various savoury fillings;
  • chuuka-wakame: shredded seaweed salad with Chinese sesame dressing;
  • loads of edamame, soybeans in the pod;
  • boiled spinach in peanut sauce, certainly a newcomer to the Japanese diet, yet none the less enjoyable
  • hanami-dango and Japanese green tea to polish them off with.
All this Oriental exuberance set us back mere 38 pounds for three. Not shabby at all for Central London, is it?

My Moscow banker girls also indulged in a bottle of Australian semillon. The wine got them in a very cheerful mood and we went on to gorge on some very nice cake from Patisserie Valerie on Piccadilly Street. A hunky Turkmen guy in the Prêt-a-Manger next door supplied us with free coffee (thanks to our ladies' charm) and we finished our dessert just on time to catch our Handel's Royal Fireworks Music at St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

I had spent about a month looking for best hanami spots in London. Although there are a lot of cherry trees in the city,only a few locations are suitable for picnics. Email me for a list!

It is quite funny to recall just how much negativity I experienced when trying to put together a hanami event in London. I failed to interest a single Japanese person. My guess that there are two types of Japanese in this city. First, those who came here out of their will tend to distance themselves from their native culture: they would rather go to a pub than eat sushi in a park. Second, expats who were sent here and who are way too busy for anything else but sleeping it out after a week of hard labour.

I have also noticed that the Japanese are very sceptical about the non-Japanese being able to appreciate the finer aspects of their culture. Truth be told,
to an extent it has proved true. However, luckily for me, Victoria and Ekaterina overwhelmed me with their enthusiasm for the whole undertaking. It is to their pro-active curiosity and positive energy that I owe most of the success of my first hanami picnic in London.


  1. I'd love a copy of your list - how can I email you? Thank you.

  2. Hi! Enjoyed reading this. I would love a copy of your list of hanami spots. Could you advise me as to how I should contact you? Many thanks