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Posted on Apr 1, 2008 | 48 comments

Hanami cherry blossom viewing picnic

Hanami cherry blossom viewing picnic

Cherry blossoms in Golden Gate Park

On Sunday our family did a version of hanami, the Japanese spring tradition of having a party under sakura cherry trees during that brief moment that they’re in bloom. We went to Golden Gate Park, where we were able to enjoy our little picnic without the crowds of Japan. I remember quickly thrown-together hanami parties in the afternoon or evening with friends and colleagues in Japan, with all kinds of food from sparse sandwiches or pre-made bentos bought from convenience stores, to elaborate barbecues cooked on portable hibachi grills accompanied by beer and sake. Hanami parties in the evening usually wound up being unpredictable and fun, with the drunk salarymen next to you wanting to share their food and try out their English.

In my old residential neighborhood in Tokyo, people would reserve their spots at popular picnic locations by writing their names and desired times on a piece of paper by the cherry tree in question. There are even official blossom forecasts (sakurazensen) by the weather bureau reporting exactly where the trees are in bloom, and where they’ve peaked. My mini version of these cherry blossom reports for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park follows — this is the week for it! If you have tips on good hanami locations near you, please let us know in comments.

Bento picnic for hanami cherry blossom viewing picnic

Contents of picnic bento for three (two adults, one preschooler): The top tier holds a variety of onigiri rice balls, some mixed with shrimp-flavored or vegetable-flavored furikake rice sprinkles, and filled with either Gohan Desu Yo! nori seaweed paste or leftover Chinese-steamed trout. The middle tier holds removable containers of shrimp salad, chicken salad and plum tomatoes. The bottom tier holds strawberries, blueberries, and little food cups of homemade blueberry-raspberry juice jiggler cups (how-to here).

Morning prep time: 25-30 minutes, using shrimp and chicken salad from Costco’s deli section, and homemade juice gelatin cups that I’d made earlier. What took the most time was making the variety of onigiri rice balls by hand. (Read on for cooking notes, my San Francisco blossom forecast, and an additional preschooler lunch.)

Rice moldsCooking: Last week over spring vacation I went to a kids’ barbecue at a Japanese friend’s house and had wonderful hand-made onigiri with a nice salty flavoring on the outside that’s achieved by wetting your hands with cold salty water when forming the rice balls. I decided to hand-make this batch of onigiri for that reason and for greater control over size — I could quickly make tiny triangles for Bug, barrel shapes, and large filled triangles for the adults without needing to dirty three or four different rice molds. The texture of the rice ball is also subtly better when made skillfully by hand — the inside should be soft, and the outside just compressed enough to hold it all together (you don’t want a squashed lump of rice that’s overly dense). I should go on record as saying that I don’t have a problem with rice molds, though, and have a collection myself. They’re definitely convenient for making perfectly shaped onigiri in no time flat.

In a leftover remake, I used leftover Chinese-steamed rainbow trout as a rice ball filling to good effect. Before dinner, Bug helped me scale the whole trout with a child-safe fish scaler, standing on a stool at the kitchen sink. He was really into it — it was funny. He didn’t want to hold the fish himself, just rub at it with the scaler, so I held the fish for him while he did his damage. He even excitedly asked if we were going to eat the head and eye (ah, that’s my warped boy!). I seasoned it with ginger, salt and pepper, then steamed it whole on a metal platter in a big Korean steamer. For topping, I sauteed julienned vegetables (what was on hand: green onions, carrots, and zucchini) and finished them in a slightly thickened sauce of Chinese black vinegar, soy sauce and chicken stock (based on a braise sauce from Kenneth Lo’s New Chinese Cooking School). To make the leftovers into onigiri filling, I chopped the vegetables and flaked the fish, using a little of the leftover vinegar sauce to flavor the fish/vegetable mix in a small bowl. You can use most any leftovers to fill rice balls, just be sure the filling is not too wet. Strongly-flavored fillings work best to offset the blandness of the rice.

Lock & Lock insulated picnic set (exploded view)Packing: I used a three-tier Lock & Lock picnic set and insulated bag tLock & Lock insulated picnic seto pack the lunch, with three 870ml tiers (one of which has four removable subcontainers). Because of the mayo-based shrimp and chicken salad, I put little ice packs cut from a flexible ice blanket down into the insulated carrying bag for best food safety. I threw in three tiny plastic spoons I washed and saved from the little shelf-stable Kiku mini pudding cups and an ice cream sampler spoon. To keep things neat, I packed oshibori damp hand towels, drinks and forks. My husband surprised me with a chilled bottle of wine, but had forgotten wine glasses. We improvised by using the emptied water bottle and cap from a smaller Lock & Lock lunch kit that had been holding extra water for Bug.

Verdict: Bug surprised me by eating both the trout-filled and nori paste-filled rice balls, but rejecting the plain ones that I’d made as a back-up in case he didn’t like the fillings. He announced that he liked the Gohan Desu Yo! seaweed paste and would like it in his school bentos. The chicken salad was for Bug, who requested that instead of the shrimp salad. He ate everything up (no complaints), and was especially pleased with the big strawberries and the little jello cups. Bug also requested the jello cups for his school bento lunches, saying that he would show them to everyone else in his class. When questioned, evidently he said that if someone has something for lunch they’re really excited about, they stand up and show everyone else.

* * * * *

Shrimp salad bento lunch for prechooler

Today’s bento lunch for preschooler: I wound up making a miniature version of our picnic for Bug’s lunch today, with shrimp salad, a little juice gelatin cup, cheese, tomatoes, and three little pieces of whole wheat bread so that Bug could assemble his own sandwiches (closed or open-face). I tucked a tiny plastic spoon for the jello into the center compartment, and put a little lid on the jello cup before closing the bento up. The lunch is packed in one 350ml box from a Lock & Lock lunch kit with insulated case, and little ice packs cut from a flexible ice blanket tucked inside to keep the shrimp salad and juice jello jiggler cool and fresh. No verdict yet as Bug’s still in school, but he likes everything in this lunch so I don’t anticipate any issues.

* * * * *

Hanami cherry blossom picnic in Golden Gate Park

San Francisco Blossom Forecast: My mini-version of the cherry blossom report for San Francisco locals is that right now the cherry trees are in various stages of bloom in Golden Gate Park and the weather is temporarily nice (rain is forecast tomorrow, although haven’t they been forecasting that the last few days only to have gorgeous weather?). The petals are just starting to fall from the tree we found, though, so you’ve got probably a week at most before the blossoms are gone (less if tomorrow’s rain is hard).

We found a beautiful, large tree across from the buffalo pasture in the west end of the park (on JFK east of the intersection with Chain of Lakes) that had long, graceful branches over a flat, grassy clearing (photo above). The trees by the entrance to the Japanese Tea Garden are beautiful in bloom, but it’s a crowded location with a lot of foot traffic. There’s a medium-sized tree in the field and picnic grounds east on of the buffalo enclosure on JFK that’s in full bloom, but the branches aren’t as long and it’s on a slight slope. There’s another set of cherry trees on a flat clearing right at the JFK & Chain of Lakes intersection that’s about 3/4 bloomed out (where we went last year), so that’s a good back-up location if the blossoms have already fallen from your first pick. (April 2 Update: I drove by some beautiful, large cherry trees in 3/4 bloom on the west park side of Stanyan between Haight & Page Street today; nice grassy area underneath, although there’s a lot of foot and car traffic nearby.)

The cherry trees in foggier/colder areas are slower to bloom, though, with the ume plum tree in front of our house just starting to show flowers (which will be followed by cherry blossoms on a nearby tree). I know there are a bunch of cherry trees at Peace Plaza in Japantown with benches underneath — if you know their flowering status please let us know in comments. Actually, please feel free to leave comments with tips on good hanami locations wherever you are (not just the Bay Area); there may be others interested in a cherry blossom-viewing picnic in the weeks to come!

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  1. Nice and romantic picnic under a cherry tree. In Paris, we have now a “beach” in august along the Seine and many people picnic. I usually do it but I know that next year, it will be “bento picnic”. I like the onigiri assortiment.

  2. That shrimp salad looks delicious.

  3. Thanks for reminding me that spring is so close – it feels further off over here on the east coast. I work on a street that is lined on both sides with cherry blossom trees. At the end of the street is a lovely park that has some trees as well. I think I foresee a picnic in my future as well…

    A fotki user has a series of photos of my work street and the park: http://public.fotki.com/susi484/in_and_around_conne/wooster_square_a/

    For about a week out of the year going to work is wonderful ;-)

  4. How beautiful! I might have to do that under our yard’s flowering plum tree!

  5. How did you prepare the different salads?

  6. Isn’t the weather just gorgeous! Down in San Jose, we flower a bit before you, so we just finished. Over it my mother’s house in Santa Cruz, things are going in Flower Explosion! Glad you, hubby and kid got to enjoy it! Spring is such a great time in SF, when it isn’t raining.
    Bug is such a great warped kid. You are doomed to a very interesting life. You get to figure out if this is good thing or not, but as his Mom I’m sure you’ll love it, most of the time. :)

  7. How nice to just sit, eat, and appreciate things! If only we were having spring-like weather here in Mass. It was warm today, but rainy, and it doesn’t look like spring will be arriving in our forecast any time soon.

  8. Thank you for the reminder of such beauty. I remember my first time seeing them and thinking cherry blossoms should be considered the 8th beauty of the world.

  9. Ahh, see now I’m majorly feeling the need to go pack up a bento and have a picnic. It’s been a long time, and I’ve got a beautiful sakura shaped jyubako box. Only problem is that it’s 11:30 pm…

    And I don’t know about cherry blossoms, but here in NW Arkansas we have dogwoods blooming and they are beautiful.
    (Right now the national cherry blossom festival in D.C. is going on.)

  10. I’m pretty sure the J-town cherry trees are long gone. The ones along Laguna and Bush in front of the Hotel Kabuki definitely are — they blossomed mid-February, and had turned completely to deep red leaves by last week. (Have I been spending too much time at O Ikakaya?)

    I think the trees in the upper half of J-town plaza may still have blossoms, but the last time I saw them was more than a week ago.

  11. my school, which is in the smack dab middle of la jolla (san diego), apparently has tons of sakura trees all around the campus!! just walking around the school is hanami for me, though i can’t be seen with beer in hand :P

    balboa park in san diego has a cherry blossom garden where our school’s taiko group performed. it’s small, but still very beautiful.

  12. Unfamiliar to the tradition rather than uncommon.

  13. I’m in DC and the cherry trees are in peak bloom right now. It’s really beautiful. The tidal basin is the traditional place to see the blossoms, but there are many other places with beautiful trees! Thanks for your hanami update!

  14. Our trees are blooming here, but it’s still quite cold for a pic-nic. We were having snow and sleet flurries just these last few days.

  15. This is giving me inspiration for my daughters 3rd birthday next week. She loves Pink – so we might have to have a Pink Picnic under the Sakura if the weather cooperates and we can find a good location. It was snowing here earlier this week – yikes.

  16. It looks so lovely and warm for a picnic! Unfortunately we still have snow on the ground here in frigid Wisconsin. We even got snow on Monday. I really cannot wait for spring to come!

  17. @1 from fossettes: Thanks on the onigiri assortment. A picnic along the Seine sounds lovely, fossettes — trust you to think of a bento-esque twist!

  18. @2 from sharon j: Thank you, sharon! I hadn’t seen the shrimp salad at Costco before, so I decided to try it out. As you can see, it was almost all shrimp, with just a little binder and some celery.

  19. @3 from dawn: Oh my goodness, dawn, those photos are gorgeous! If there were a street and park near me I’d definitely do hanami there with some friends. Beautiful!

  20. @4 from Monica: We’ve got a flowering plum tree across from our house, unfortunately it’s mostly over concrete. A picnic in your own yard under an ume tree in bloom? Sounds ideal.

  21. @6 from Lisa Harrigan: I have to confess to being more than a little tickled at Bug’s eagerness to mess with the fish and poke at them. He actually preferred the fish skin to the fish itself — hmm. Anyway, we have been having nice weather up here lately and I’m not sure how much longer it’ll last before the rain starts (as you say), so I’m glad we took advantage for hanami.

  22. @7 from eudyptes: So maybe May for your trees in Mass, then? April?

  23. @8 from Namahottie: The cherry blossoms really are striking, aren’t they? I don’t think I ever paid them much mind until I lived in Japan and started going to hanami.

  24. @9 from Kakugori: NW Arkansas, eh? That’s where my sister and her family live now! Small world.

  25. @10 from anita: Thanks for the Japantown update, anita! I haven’t been through there recently, so it’s great to hear from someone who has.

  26. @11 from tk: Your campus sounds like a beautiful place in spring! I guess a beer is out of the question, but a bento should be fine, no?

  27. @12 from Jessika: Thanks for the info on KungsträdgÃ¥rden — sounds lovely. I hear you on the annoyance factor of drunk people wanting to come practice their English on the gaijin. Early on I was very patient with it, then as my Japanese became better than most people’s English I found that if I just answered back in Osaka-ben the conversation would become a lot more interesting… ;-) I’m sure you understand!

  28. @14 from eva: I seem to remember something similar to your maple foliage forecasts in Colorado, but for the aspen trees in the Rocky Mountains. It was a yearly pilgrimage for our family to go for a drive into the mountains and picnic during the change of seasons, but tricky as you say in terms of timing. Interesting that you do that in New England as well — but I really shouldn’t be surprised.

  29. @15 from natalie: What’s your favorite place to see the blossoms in D.C.? Somewhere other than the tidal basin?

  30. @16 from Amber in Portland: Brrr, hanami in the snow and sleet doesn’t sound like much fun at all. Maybe a quick stroll, then?

  31. @17 from Nilmandra: Wow, it’s a wonder the blossoms are still on the trees if it’s so windy! I’m glad you got a chance to go out and capture some of the beauty with your camera, though.

  32. Wow, those blossoms are beautiful!
    I don’t have any cherry blossoms in my area, so I can’t go hanami. But the weather is getting so nice I want to have a bento picnic with my friend at the park sometime, and you picnic bento gives me some good ideas! ^_^

    The onigiri look delicious. I only own a mini ice sphere mold I use for mini rice balls, so I used to hand form them with the salt and water method. But now I use plastic wrap lined with salt and water and a cup to measure the size of my onigiri, and they turn out beautifully. Plus, no burned or red and sore hands that way. ^_^;;

  33. Can I just say a word about Ichiban Kan since I know it’s been mentioned here before? I’m OK with the fact that their shopping cart feature isn’t up yet, although I’m chomping at the bit to go shopping. But when I saw that some of the items I bought on Ebay a few weeks ago for $4.50 and up, plus EMS shipping, are selling there for $1, I about died. Here’s hoping they get up and running soon for us poor East Coasters.

  34. That shrimp salad from Costco is delicious! I had to have it as soon as I saw it in the case a few weeks ago. I added some of Emeril’s Bayou Blast spice to help it along, there wasn’t enough flavor for me, but the shrimp is top quality!

    Dont you love how Costco handles their leftovers! They are all about the ‘leftover remake’ too!

    :D

  35. Ahh, your pictures look lovely! The cherry blossoms are already weeks gone in Sacramento. I wish I would have thought of having a picnic like yours. :)

  36. About the onigiri: We don’t use the salty water when forming the rice balls, we sometimes put plastic wrap in the mold before pressing. That makes it come out much cleaner, and it’s half-way wrapped already. We do put table salt on the outside, a bit, and that helps too.

    No cherry blossoms here in the midwest yet. We are rejoicing that our3-5 inches of snow from Monday is melting and we’ll soon hit 50 degrees!

    We always visit Japan in the summer or winter, so I’ve never seen the kind of hanami you described. But it sounds like tons of fun.

    I also like the Gohan Desu Yo! with my rice, I haven’t made onigiri with it, but I have had it in Japan. Love gohan with salmon furikake though.

    Still longing for my fresh ikura and terako. Two months to wait, and we go back to Japan for two weeks!

    Keep up the good blog! ;)

  37. @18 from Mika in Seattle: A pink sakura picnic? Sounds adorable — I’m sure your daughter will love it!

  38. @19 from Heather: Ugh, I used to live in Wisconsin, so I feel for you in the winter. Comfort yourself with the squeaky, squeaky fresh cheese curds that we can’t get here in San Francisco!

  39. What a great idea – our cherries are just now peaking and maybe we will do this when I get home. I have that same set but am not sure it will hold enough to feed all three of us! We have a stately cherry in front of the house, so we can picnic at home.

  40. @26 from vampyra1: Your LJ looks good for so new — enjoy! LJ was my first toe in the water for blogging so that I could participate in the LJ bentolunch community. What an education the last two years have been!

  41. @37 from dejikowaffo: I like the plastic wrap method for making onigiri as well — very neat and, as you say, it tends to save your hands from the burns. After I made all these onigiri, I showed my husband the evidence (the red spot on my left palm).

  42. @38 from Becky Anderson: You saw my subsequent review of Ichiban Kan’s online store, right? http://lunchinabox.net/2008/04/02/soft-launch-of-ichiban-kan-online-store/ I’m such a cheerleader for them; I tend to think they’re the good guys here, making Japanese bento gear available to us in the States at such low prices. I wish them the best of luck, and hope people have good experiences with their shipping and customer service once they’re fully up and running. Fingers crossed!

  43. @39 from Kaye: Adding Cajun spice or something similar to the Costco shrimp salad sounds like a great idea — I found it a little bland as well (but beautiful quality shrimp, as you say, and not overcooked). I was initially skeptical about Costco’s deli food, but have gradually become a convert. I love all the different things they do with their fresh rotisserie chickens!

  44. @40 from Jessica: Well, you could always take a road trip… ;-)

  45. @41 from Darryl Papa-sensei: Now I’ve got a craving for fresh ikura too! I remember a Japanese boyfriend making a TON of it homemade at home, and we feasted on ikura donburi for days… Reminds me also of a trip to Hokkaido (delicious). On the onigiri front, the other benefit to making onigiri with plastic wrap is that by minimizing contact with your hands, you’re keeping the food cleaner and reducing the chance of spoilage. The salt helps too, of course, but still…

  46. @42 from eva: You know, right after I wrote my comment to you and hit Send, I realized that I’d had a big brain fart. Somehow only England registered, and the “New” part fell out of my brain. D’oh!

  47. @45 from snappiness: That would be lovely to have a cherry tree right in front of your house where you could picnic — sounds great! Look forward to pictures (hint, hint).

  48. Picnics are a great leisure activity. Having such an economic crisis, everyone wants to save money for the things most likely needed. Picnics are one way to help you save a little bit of money while having fun.. Not to mention, that kids love to be outdoors all the time. It’s a perfect combination. Hey, grab your picnic baskets and have fun.