SAKURA – Japanese Cherry Blossom

An eternal symbol of renewal and hope, and a reminder that life is fragile and precious.

Life is short. Often, the sun quietly rises unnoticed, and then seems to set much too soon. The cherry blossom is a reminder to all of us that life is beautiful, but it is no exception to the Zen concept of impermanence, which expresses the notion that all conditioned existence is transient. In one instance the cherry blossoms are spectacular in full bloom, blink twice and they could all be gone with the first rainfall or errant breeze. The sublime beauty of the flower is a symbol of humility and serves as a reminder of our mortality, their brief life at the beginning of each spring symbolizes the essence that life is precious and we should live it well.

Sakura is the Japanese name for the ornamental cherry trees and their flowers, often referred to as cherry blossom. The stunning beauty of the blossoms is short-lived, lasting less than two weeks and at their peak bloom for only a few days. For many centuries, people from all walks of life are moved deeply by the spectacular and brief bloom of these magical trees. Like Mount Fuji, Sakura has spiritual meaning and holds special significance in Japanese Culture. The breathtaking sight of cherry trees in bloom has inspired poets, artists, emperors, samurais and ordinary people for over 1000 years. The captivating quality of the blossoms is expressed in art, literature, and music.

There is a legend in Japanese mythology explaining why the cherry blossoms are so exquisite.   Each spring, the fairy Konohanasakuya-hime hovers low in the warm spring sky, wakening the sleeping cherry trees to life with her delicate breath.  Her name literally means “cherry blossom blooming princess.”  She is also the goddess of Mount Fuji and a symbol of delicate earthly life in Japanese mythology.  

April is the time of the year when Sakura blooms in many parts of the world.  In Japan, because of its north-south orientation, blossoming begins in Okinawa, the most southern prefecture of Japan.  As warmer weather moves up the island, the blooms reach Tokyo and Kyoto areas around early April before moving on to Hokkaido, the largest and most northern prefecture.  In early spring, everyone in Japan pays close attention to the daily “blossom forecast” known as sakura-zensen featured nightly on the news with the latest predictions of exactly when the cherry trees will be blooming in every region of Japan.  Millions of people follow the northward progression of the blooms, and signs indicating the best spots for viewing are common at train stations.  

The 3 Great Cherry Blossom Trees of Japan

Japan has three great cherry blossom trees known as Sandaizakura.   All three are recognized as Japan’s National Nature Treasure.  These stunning trees have lived for a long time and a must-see for enthusiasts following cherry blossom blooms across Japan in the spring.

Usuzumi Zakura

This famous old cherry tree is found in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture.  Usuzumi Zakura is over 1,500 years old and is believed to have been planted personally by Emperor Keitai in the 6th century.   This unique tree initially sprouts pale pink flowers, in full bloom the flowers change to pure white, then to a pale grey immediately before falling.  Hence, the name Usuzumi Zakura which means “pale grey cherry blossom,” denoting the light grey color of the blossoms just before they fall to the ground.

Jindaizakura

2,000 years old Jindaizakura on the ground of Jissoji Temple

Jindaizakura, “Age of the Gods Cherry Blossom”,is found in the Yamanashi Prefecture, and the first of the three great trees to be recognized as Japan’s National Nature Treasure.  It is one of the oldest surviving cherry trees in Japan at 2,000 years old.  The shape of the trunk is like a gigantic boulder spanning 11.8 m across its widest point.  The upper branches were lost in the Showa era, but other parts still produce awe-inspiring blooms.   According to Japanese folklore, the Jindaizakura was planted by Prince Yamato Takeru, an ancient hero of Japan. 

Miharu Takizakura

Miharu Takizakura: 1000 years old “Waterfall Sakura”

This spectacular, over 1,000 years old giant, is found in the Fukushima PrefectureThe tree is 39 feet tall, with the canopy measuring 75 feet across at the widest point.  Takizakura literally means “waterfall sakura,” with pink flowers spreading in all directions from the curved branches like a waterfall.

Usuzumi Sakura and Jindaizakura are at their flowering peak in early April. Miharu Takizakura blooms in mid to late April since it is the farthest north of the three.  So as long as you don’t mind a bit of travelling about and with good planning, in one season you can see all three of Japan’s best Sakura trees before their petals hit the ground.

HISTORY AND TRADITION OF “HANAMI” – CHERRY BLOSSOM VIEWING

The Japanese has a strong understanding and connection with nature, with a deep sense of every change of the season.  Their appreciation for nature’s beauty adds simple joy to daily life.  The extraordinary qualities of the Sakura bloom have inspired viewing rituals and tradition called Hanami for over a thousand years, “hana” means flower and “mi” means “to view”, literally means “flower viewing.”   It is said that this practice began with social gatherings that Emperor Saga adopted for the nobilities during the Nara Period (710-784).   Until this time, ume (plum blossoms) and fuji (wisteria) were the blooms of choice; but their popularity was overtaken by the cherry blossoms in the early Heian Period (794–1185).  The first piece of literature that references the term Hanami is found in the Tale of Genji, one of the world’s first novel by Lady Murasaki Shikibu.  There was mention of wisteria viewing in this 11th-century novel, but Hanami itself referred to the appreciation of cherry blossoms at this time.

The practice of Hanami was soon extended to the Samurai class.    The vigorous and brief blooming of the Japanese cherry trees was an important symbol for these highly cultured men of war.  Their goal was to die an honorable death in the service of their Lord in the prime of their life.  Samurai warriors compared themselves to the petals falling from the trees in their prime signifying the beauty of their short well-lived lives.  

Himeji castle in Hyōgo Prefecture, one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan

During the Edo period (1603-1868, when Japan was under the rule of Tokugawa shogunate) Hanami was spread to the commoners.  It is said that Tokugawa Yoshimune, 8th shogun of Tokugawa shogunate, planted large number of Sakura in every park in Edo (today’s Tokyo) to encourage the general public to participate in Hanami.  Food and drinks have been an integral part of any Hanami party.  People savored sake over lunch in the festive atmosphere under the Sakura trees.  Picnics were common with different food such as seafood, pickles, rice transported in jubako, layered boxes with separate compartments.  Today, there are food stalls selling hot snacks at the festivals, but many people bring food that they meticulously prepared themselves for the special occasion.  

Sakura-dango is a very popular snack during Hanami.   These special rice dumplings are different than the other dango typically seen throughout the year because each skewer has three dumplings colored pink for spring Sakura, white as the last of the winter snow, and green in anticipation of the coming of summer.  Dango is so popular that it’s referenced the Japanese expression hana yori dango (rice dumplings rather than flowers), playfully refers to people attending Hanami for food and drinks rather than the appreciation of the Sakura itself.

Poetry and music have also played important roles in Hanami celebrations.  People composed poetry in calligraphic style during the festival.   They bring portable writing boxes known as suzuri-babo to the party, which contain the suzuri, a sloping ink-stone which was mixed with water to produce ink.   Performers played musical instruments such as the koto, bamboo flute and samisen for the listening pleasure of the Hanami participants. 

Traditionally, Hanami parties include sake drinking.  Enjoying huge bottles of sake under the spreading blooms of the Sakura is known as Hanami-zake.   Sake is a special beverage to the Japanese and plays an important role in their culture making it a fitting part of Hanami celebrations.  It is customary to fill one’s companions’ cups rather than one’s own.  Once everyone is served, they raise their cups calling out “kampai” (bottom up!) to toast the occasion.

Color woodblock print by Kitao Shigemasa, a leading printing maker in Edo of the 18th century. Depict cherry blossom viewing party on Asuka Hill in Asukayama Park, opened by Shōgun Tokugawa Yoshimune.  Three women and one man enjoying warm sake on a ground cover inside a partial screen enclosure.   Above the image is a haiku poem describing both the cherry flower and human “blossoms”:  “All flocked together / Blossoms upon blossoms / Asuka Hill”

Cherry blossom is also a symbol of hope to the Japanese as the season coincides with the start of many corporate fiscal years, and also a new school year.   In Japan, the beginning of the new school year starts in April instead of September.  This marks the beginning of an employee’s first day at work or a student’s first day at school.    Some employees spend their first day at new jobs staking out prime blossom-viewing spots with big blue tarps for their company’s Hanami party.   The vigorous energy of the blossoms allows people to hope and dream for a new beginning and a brighter future.

Yozakura – Night Sakura

Hanami at night is called yozakura meaning “night Sakura.” Wherever the cherry blossoms bloom, viewing them at night is an experience not to be missed.   The cherry blossoms are already spectacular in the daytime; they are even more alluring after the sun goes down, especially in the moonlight.   As the color of the cherry blossoms is usually white or light pink, its beauty is understated against white cloudy skies during the day.   Seeing the magnificent white clouds of cherry blossoms illuminating against the dark night skies is a breathtaking sight to behold.  Sitting with friends and loved ones on a chilly spring night, warm sake in hand, underneath so many blooming cherry blossoms forming a thick glorious canopy, is a one of a kind special experience.

The magical experience of Yozakura is no longer confined to the people of Japan.   In her book The Japanese Cherry Trees in Washington DC (published 1935), American author Maud Kay Sites wrote “In the pale grey dawn the rosy cloud of blossoms heralds the sunrise, under the noonday sun it glows with paler radiance, and in the moonlight it is the living expression of the poet’s soul.”  In Vancouver, the Sakura Illumination event is part of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, where Queen Elizabeth Park is lit up with lanterns and light projections.   Visitors can take photos and picnic under the illuminated cherry blossoms in the evening spring air.

The Significance of Cherry Blossom Festivals

Over the years, Japan sent ornamental cherry trees as gifts of friendship to countries around the world.   There are now many locations in North America and Europe where one can appreciate these wonderful cherry blossom trees and the Festivals in the spring.

Annual spring time celebration reminds us that we are human, we are alive and continuously growing spiritually.  We celebrate the arrival of spring with laughter, food, drinks, poetry and love.  We walk through parks, enjoying each other’s company beneath clouds of flowers, renewing our energy and spirits.  Under the cherry blossoms, we celebrate our own brief lives and we share this experience with millions of people all over the world, from Tokyo to Washington, from Vancouver to Toronto, from Paris to Copenhagen. 

Sakura – Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC
Sakura – Toronto
Spring time in Stockholm, Sweden

When people come together to view and admire the splendor of the cherry blossoms, they are not just thinking about the beauty of the flowers, but the cultural tradition and deeper meaning that they bring.  Cherry blossoms serve as a reminder that life is fragile and precious.  We need to make the most of our time and cherish every passing moment in our hearts.

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