Cherry blossom viewing in Japan

By The Kimono Company on 03/04/2014

View of cherry blossoms at Yoshino

The cherry blossom is dear to Japanese hearts. As the blossoms emerge every spring, families and friends will gather across Japan to view their national flower (sakura) in bloom, drink warm sake and snack on sweet dumplings, in a tradition known as hanami ('flower viewing'). The ritual of hanami has been celebrated since about the 8th century, at first only by the imperial courts but later also enjoyed by the common people; nowadays, famous cherry blossom locations can get very crowded and locals compete for the best viewing spots in public gardens, setting out their picnic blankets hours in advance. With April marking the start of the Japanese school year and the month when many new employees begin work, hanami parties and cherry blossom festivals are also a popular way to welcome newcomers.

The cherry's flowering is brief, usually just one to two weeks, but such is the length of the Japanese archipelago that blossoms appear in late January in the sub-tropical islands of Okinawa, reach the central cities of Kyoto and Tokyo by April and make their final appearance in the northern reaches of Hokkaido in May. The advance of the 'cherry blossom front' is tracked on nightly news bulletins so that people can plan their flower viewing.

Hanami cherry blossom viewing in Japan

(Family and friends picnic and party under the cherry blossoms)

Detail of Emperor Meiji viewing cherry blossom in Ueno Park

(Empress Meiji viewing cherry blossoms; detail of woodblock, Hiroshige, 1881)

One of Japan’s top cherry-blossom destinations is Mt Yoshino, where 30,000 cherry trees turn the hillsides pink (a stunning view of Yoshino can be seen at the top of this article). In Kyoto, meanwhile, the star attraction is a huge weeping cherry tree which is lit up at night. It is considered a good form of meditation to sit and watch a single flower open on a sunny day, but presumably not amid the throng of hanami.

Gion Weeping Cherry by Shokei 1890s

('Gion Weeping Cherry' by Shokei, 1890s)

The great haiku poet Issa (1763-1828) devoted a number of his poems to cherry blossoms. The following two hint at the bustle of a hanami party:

Rain of cherry blossoms...
not a face
without a fan

Amid the sound of voices
blushing stands
an evening cherry

The cherry blossom has been revered by the Japanese for many centuries: its brief appearance and fragile blossoms provide an enduring symbol of the ephemeral nature of life, and in the Japanese sensibility many things are beautiful precisely because they are delicate and transient. Poets liken groves of blossoming cherry trees to clouds, while their cascading petals become snow. The butterfly is said to be a fallen petal returning to the bough - a beautiful metaphor for rebirth, and expressed in this haiku by Moritake (1473-1549):

A fallen blossom
returning to its branch?
No, a butterfly!

Samurai decorated their military equipment with emblems of cherry blossom because they saw a parallel with their own lives - just as the cherry blossom fell at the moment of its greatest beauty, so too did the warrior face honourable death in a battle for which he had prepared all his life.

Cherry blossom and red bridge

Finally, on a less spiritual note: both the leaves and flowers of cherry blossom are often preserved in salt and eaten in various ways. The salty, sour leaves are used as edible wrappers for sakura-mochi, a traditional springtime food where a rice cake is filled with sweet bean paste. Preserved sakura flowers are floated in plain boiling water to make a clear, faintly pink tea (sakura-yu) that is slightly salty and sour, and an interesting change from green tea. Traditionally, this tea has been served at arranged meetings between potential marriage partners as well as at weddings, since being clear and unclouded it bodes well for a healthy marriage.

sakura tea and sakura mochi rice cake

sakura noodles and sakura kit kat

(Clockwise from top left: sakura-yu tea; sakura-mochi sweet rice cake; Kit Kat flavoured with cherry blossom and green tea; sakura noodles) 


Tags: cherry blossom | sakura | hanami | festival | Japan | Kyoto | Hiroshige | haiku | Issa | symbol | tradition | samurai | tea | food | wedding

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