Think Japan and what immediately pops into your head? Chances are, the answer is sakura, or cherry blossoms. The pink flowers are a nationwide symbol of spring, something everyone looks forward to during these cold winter months.
The Many Meanings of Sakura
As the national flower of Japan, sakura is pretty important. It can be seen everywhere, from actual trees to images or symbols. During the warring period, they were representative of nationalism and military strength. These days they are much more peaceful, as befits the delicate blossom. Most public schools and buildings have cherry trees outside. Countdowns, calendars, and even weather forecasts are dedicated to charting the first blossoms. They bloom at different times throughout the country, though usually between mid March and April.
Sakura symbolizes the beauty and transience of life, which is a very important aspect of Japanese and Buddhist culture. The blossoms are highly anticipated but they bloom for only a short period before wilting away. In Japan, this ephemeral quality is crucial. Life should be lived in the moment, but death is inevitable and should be accepted gracefully, and sakura reminds everyone of this philosophy.
One of the most anticipated events is hanami, or flower viewing, an ancient custom practiced since the 8th century. The viewings happen in the vicinity of the trees, whether they are by shrines, parks, or schools. Since the flowers only last a few weeks, people carefully plan their parties to occur at optimal times. They are very easy to arrange, requiring only food, drinks, and the signature blue tarp.
Many bring their own picnic baskets to share food and conversation with friends. Barbecue services are especially popular this time of year, as they will set up the grill and tools at your desired spot. Crowds turn out by the hundreds, and some companies will even send people out early to ensure they get a good spot. The timing coincides with the start of the school year, and many combine hanami with welcome parties. Drinking is a big part of these events, and the parties can last for hours. At night, strategically placed lights and lanterns illuminate the trees for an amazing view.
Never Out of Style
Cherry blossom patterns have been popular for hundreds of years. They are popular in the arts, especially theater and paintings. As an extremely popular pattern, they pop up on kimono, stationary, architecture, and even appliances. Sakura is a very common girl’s name, but it also appears as part of a company’s name, such as banks or airlines.
Japan has more than a hundred varieties of cherry blossoms. People commonly think of sakura in shades of pink, though the most popular strain is actually white, with the faintest tint of pink near the stems. Others have larger flowers or resemble weeping willows. There are even cherry trees that bloom in fall and winter.
If there is something you absolutely have to do when you visit Japan, it’s enjoying cherry blossoms. Whether you arrange a special hanami party or simply walk along a sakura-lined path, it will be unforgettable. Take the time to enjoy the iconic flower of Japan, and be sure to take plenty of photos.