Yes, the sakura has for ages been the favorite of our people and the emblem of our character. . . . But, its nativity is not its sole claim to our affection. The refinement and grace of its beauty appeal to our aesthetic sense as no other flower can.
Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), from “Bushido” (1900)
Spring — the season of sakura (cherry blossoms) — is just around the corner, and it won’t be long before the entire country is transformed into a fairyland tinted pale pink.
In a heartening season of renewal after winter’s chill, a wave of cherry blossoms washes over these islands, usually starting from southern Kyushu in late March before reaching Tokyo in early April and then northern Hokkaido in mid-May — though this year the blossom is tipped to be earlier than usual.
At this time not only are there many varieties of sakura to enjoy in bloom, but there’s the much-loved custom of hanami to indulge in, too. Though hanami translates literally as “flower viewing,” and normally refers to admiring cherry blossoms, in practice it translates as drinking, eating and having a good time together with family or friends under the cherry trees.
It is widely believed that the flower-viewing custom began in the Imperial Court in Kyoto early in the Heian Period (794-1185). Before that, it seems that people were rather more partial to the blossoming ume (plum) trees that had been brought from China and were a symbol of foreign culture. But when the practice of sending envoys to China was discontinued in 894, the court in Kyoto began to appreciate Japan’s own culture more, and things indigenous to Japan. With that, gradually cherry blossom became more popular.
Ever since, cherry blossoms have been used in a wide variety of events and rituals in Japan. One of the most famous hanami was held as long ago as 1598 by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi. After successfully bringing the entire country under his control, Hideyoshi led a procession of 1,300 people to Daigo Temple in Kyoto and held a festive party there, composing poems and holding performances of noh while admiring the cherry blossoms.
In the century that followed, the feudal mass of commoners gradually came to share their leaders’ love of hanami. During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1867), many cherry trees were transplanted from Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture to Edo in order to beautify the country’s new political center. Thanks to the system of sankin kotai, under which feudal lords had to spend every other year in residence in Edo, more trees were brought in baggage trains from around the country. At this time, too, an increasing number of new varieties were created, through both natural and contrived cross-fertilization. As a result, although around 10 varieties of cherry trees are thought to be native to Japan, some 300 kinds of cherry blossoms can now be appreciated around the country.
But why has the flower been so popular for such a long time?
Generally, the transience of the blossoms, which last only a few days before falling, is said to strike a chord with the Japanese character. So, too, eating and drinking under the trees is associated with an ancient belief that fallen pollen that goes into sake cups promotes good health.
Over the centuries, cherry blossom has been beloved of many famous artists, and appears in countless paintings, poems, films, photos and plays — as well as being a popular kimono design.
Rather less romantically, department stores and shops are now often decorated with cherry blossoms — more likely plastic than real — and at this time of year will have a section devoted to sakura-related products. Among these are many foods and drinks only available at this time. Perhaps the best known are sakura tea — made by pouring a hot water over a salted cherry flower — and sakura mochi, a sweetmeat made of glutinous rice and sweet red beans that’s wrapped in a salted sakura leaf. In addition, special boxed lunches, menu courses, desserts and cocktails associated with sakura will be widely available.
But Japanese don’t have a monopoly on the appreciation of sakura. Even first-time visitors to Japan will be touched to see blossoms drifting down in what’s known as a hanafubuki wind, and a chance to experience yo-zakura (cherry-blossom viewing by moonlight or by the light of paper lanterns) should remain long in the memory.
Although there are many renowned cherry-blossom viewing spots across the nation, before setting off to one be sure to check radio or TV reports so you can catch the trees at their glorious best.
In Tokyo, April is usually cherry-blossom month — and it’s hard to miss them.
One of the city’s most famous venues is Shinjukugyoen National Garden, with its 1,500 cherry trees of 75 species. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is 200 yen.
Ueno Park, at 626,000 sq. meters Tokyo’s largest public park, will hold a sakura festival from late March to early April, when it will be packed with revelers seated beneath its 1,100 blossoming cherry trees.
Meanwhile, Sumida Park along the Sumida River has more than 400 cherry trees that will be lit up when they are in full bloom from late March to early April, while along the Chidoriga-fuchi, near the Imperial Palace, is a popular party spot beneath its 250 cherry trees. On the opposite side of the moat as well, more than 300 cherry trees in Kitanomaru Park will be lit up to show off the splendor of the delicate flowers.
In Kansai, Kyoto and Nara are treasure troves of cherry trees. For Kyoto enthusiasts, the shidare-zakura (weeping cherry blossoms) of Maruyama Park and Heian Jingu are a must, especially at night when they are illuminated. Also in the city, 1,000 cherry trees line the Tetsugaku-no-michi (Path of Philosophy), while in the Arashiyama area there’s the spectacular “sakura mountain” to be marveled at in this season, too. The best time for hanami in the former Imperial capital is from early to mid-April, with the famed yae-zakura (double cherry blossoms) at Ninnaji Temple normally among the last to come into full bloom.
In Nara, about 50,000 yama-zakura (wild cherry trees) on Mount Yoshino will come into full bloom from bottom to top during early and mid-April.
While the sight of hundreds or thousands of cherry trees in full bloom together is a wonderful experience, around Japan there are also many beautiful solitary specimens well worth visiting.
Among these, three in particular are normally singled out.
The Taki-zakura (waterfall cherry tree) in Miharu, Fukushima Prefecture, is so called because the rose-pink blossoms on its mass of downward arching branches resemble a waterfall; while Usuzumi-zakura (literally “light Chinese-ink color cherry tree”) in Neo, Gifu Prefecture is believed to have been planted by an emperor 1,500 years ago and is famous for its petals that gradually change from pale pink to the color of its name. Finally there is the Jindai-zakura (literally “mythological age cherry tree”) in the precincts of Jisoji Temple in Mukawa, Yamanashi Prefecture, which is believed to be 2,000 years old and Japan’s oldest sakura.
So, wherever you go, whatever you do, be sure to enjoy the fleeting delight of cherry blossom this season — and hope the weather is kind, and hard rain and strong winds hold off to allow the trees to show their full splendor.