Throughout Japan, in some places as early as January, but more usually from the end of March to early May, in those fleeting weeks when ornamental cherries are dense with blossom, families and friends gather under the trees to picnic and revel in their transient beauty and to celebrate the onset of spring. Parties are held in the daytime and at night, and may include poetry readings and music as well as feasting.
‘Hanami’ is the name of this festival, which translates as ‘flower viewing’, from ‘hana’, which means ‘flowers’. Timings for Hanami vary according to location and the vagaries of the weather, and for months beforehand the population is obsessed by the increasingly accurate cherry blossom or ‘sakura’ forecasts of the Japan Meteorological Agency.
Hanami is a huge tourist attraction as well as a great national event, but you don’t need to travel that far to enjoy it. True to its track record for creativity and enterprise, Faversham has its own Hanami – at Brogdale Farm, home to the National Fruit Collection since 1952. The 150 acres of orchards are a magnificent sight at any time of the year – row upon immaculately tended row of fruit trees, 4,000 varieties of the 12 major temperate fruits. These range from 2,000 varieties of dessert and cooking apples to pears, plums, dessert and sour cherries, grapes, cider apples and perry pears. There are quinces, medlars, cobnuts, gooseberries and black, red, white and pink currants – a spring to autumn bounty of blossom and fruit.
Owned by Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) on behalf of the nation, and curated by the University of Reading, the National Fruit Collection is the largest of its kind, an internationally important genetic resource for combating pests and disease and for developing future food crops. Public access is organised by Brogdale Collections, the Kent charity set up to ensure the Collection’s long-term sustainable future. The Collection is open to the public from April to September and self-guided or guided tours with experts are available. If you go on a guided tour in late June and July, on foot or on a tractor trailer, you can sample cherries as you go. Back in Brogdale’s marketplace there is a café and fruit trees for sale. There are festivals and fairs throughout the season, details on the website.
For one day each spring, this year on 21 April (postponed from 14 April due to the miserable weather) from 10am to 4pm, Brogdale’s Hanami Festival takes place among the 350 cherry trees in the ornamental orchards, their branches strung with vividly coloured paper lanterns. Bring your own picnic and stake out your spot beneath the blossom. Japanese kites will be swooping and soaring above the trees. Immersion in Japanese culture is a feature of the day, with performances on Taiko drums and displays of Tameshiri and Iaijutsu sword techniques. There will be an exhibition of Japanese culture and opportunities for visitors to try on a kimono or watch the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, try their hand at calligraphy under the tutelage of Japanese artist and calligrapher Koshu, or tackle Origami, the traditional art of paper folding.
Picnic supplies can be augmented with green tea, wasabi, rice crackers and sweets from the Japanese tuck shop or sushi and yakisoba from the stall run by the Mr Miyagi sushi shop in Canterbury. Chefs will be there to introduce visitors to the art of making sushi – nigiri, rolls and sashimi – at home. Coffee and hot drinks, cherry blossom lemonade, pastries, pizzas, ice cream and crepes made with cherry blossom will also be on offer.
Guided walking tours of the orchards are included in the ticket price and will be running all day, as will the famous Faversham miniature railway which, for a small additional charge, zips round the orchards for a 15-minute tour suitable for all ages. Tickets for the Hanami Festival cost £9 for adults, £8 for concessions, £5 for a child and £23 for a family ticket.
As well as the Hanami Festival, Brogdale offers further opportunities to enjoy Hanami events, with Hanami Picnic Experiences daily until the end of April. Following a guided tour of the orchards, visitors picnic under the blossom. They can visit the exhibition of Japanese artefacts, sample Japanese snacks and have a go at calligraphy, origami and trying on a kimono. Hanami Picnic Experiences are very popular and places should be booked 48 hours in advance; some days are already sold out. Tickets cost £11.50 for adults and £2.50 for children. There are two time slots: 10:30 for a 12 noon picnic or 13:00 for a 14:30 picnic. Groups of 15 or more have the bonus option of a picnic put together by Macknade Fine Foods, delivered to their picnic spot by Brogdale Collections.
Hosting Hanami in Kent, in the aftermath of a bitter winter and a delayed and fretful spring, has been an anxious business this year. I visited Brogdale Farm for a preview on a cold and rainy day just after Easter. Ornamental cherry buds were still tightly closed. However, warm, sunny days are now forecast and blossom is breaking out all over.
Tel: 01795 536250
Text: Sarah. Photos: Brogdale Collections