Don't "view cherry blossoms"—talk about your traditions naturally

Cherry blossoms in a public park—but no one is doing "hanami"

There is a Japanese springtime tradition known as hanami when people of all ages have a picnic—and a drink or two—under a canopy of cherry blossoms. If you go to a park in Tokyo during spring, you will certainly see people lounging on picnic sheets.

However, when discussing hanami there's one problem: Western people don't do it. For instance, my hometown of Vancouver has plenty of beautiful trees, but nobody has a picnic under those trees.

Yes, hanami can be translated as "cherry blossom viewing", but if you simply say, "On Saturday, I did cherry blossom viewing," then a native speaker won't really understand you. They might wonder, "Did you view them from a bus? Was the goal to see as many trees as possible?" 

When discussing traditions, simply say the proper name in your native language, and then explain it.

I went to the park and had a picnic under the cherry blossoms. Japanese people call it hanami

You might also ask, "Have you ever heard of hanami?" If the answer is no, then explain it. You can teach the listener and broaden their horizons, and they'll even learn a new word in your language.  

The danger of using direct translations 

When I lived in Japan, my friend told me about a festival where many people "carry portable shrines". 

I imagined tiny shrines, like the ones that some people have inside their house. Those seemed portable to me. 

In fact, the speaker meant mikoshi which are often huge, requiring dozens of people to move them through the streets.  When I saw the mikoshi, I was shocked. They were not at all what I had imagined! 

If the speaker had told me the Japanese word and explained it a little, then I would have been a lot more excited about going to the festival.

When to just use English

Sometimes, of course, there is a translation that works. For instance "shinkansen" is a "bullet train" in English. That is a perfect translation.

However, when it comes to traditional things, there is rarely an effective translation.

So, please teach people about your local culture, and when you do, follow these simple steps: 

  1. Use the best word to describe it—that may be a word in your native language.
  2. Check understanding, "Have you ever heard of ----- ?"
  3. Explain it in English if necessary.

Following those steps will build cultural bridges and make you a more effective, more interesting speaker. 

I hope you enjoy hanami this year! 

canopy [noun]—like a roof, but not part of a building. It may be natural, like how cherry blossoms have the shape of a roof.
lounging [verb]—relaxing by sitting or laying down.