Possibly the only thing in Japan that isn’t completely punctual is the advent of cherry blossom flowering. The more I read about timing one’s trip to ensure that you experience cherry blossom season, the more emphatic the advice to just turn up and focus on enjoying Japan as a whole. Such is the transient window of catching these flowering trees in their prime.
Monitoring the advent of cherry blossom season is taken seriously. The Japanese have a television forecast for cherry blossom season, provided by the country’s Meteorological Agency. The blossoms move north in a “sakura zensen”, or cherry blossom ‘front’, and its progress is keenly tracked. The blooming time of cherry trees differs from year to year depending on the weather. If the weather during the months and weeks preceding the cherry blossom season is mild, blossoms will open early. If it is cold, blossoms will open later. From year to year, the start of the blooming season can vary by as much as two weeks. Hence the obsession with when and where the sakura are expected to open (kaika) and reach full bloom (mankai).
We arrived in early April a little nervous that we would have missed the show because Instagrammers had started posting images of the blooms in late February 😳
As it turned out our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The season was early in Tokyo, our first stop and late in Kyoto, our last stop. Checking into our Tokyo hotel on our first afternoon in Japan, the helpful manager urged us out immediately to Ueno Park.
So what is this national obsession with these fluffy pink and white buds?
In Japan, all four seasons are highly cherished and celebrated, which is one of the main principles of Shinto. Aside from the fact that it’s the country’s national flower, cherry blossoms are a symbolic flower of the spring, a time of renewal, and draw attention to the fleeting nature of life. The life-span of a cherry blossom is heartbreakingly brief. After their beauty peaks within a two week period, the blossoms start to fall to the ground. During Spring, significant areas across Japan become a dreamy pink landscape, almost ethereal under the delicate flowers. The Japanese people embrace this seasonal change and even incorporate cherry blossom flavours in the food, sweets and snacks.
The cherry blossom known as ‘sakura’, has been celebrated in Japan for many centuries and holds a very particular place in Japanese culture. The tradition of embracing, enjoying and viewing cherry blossoms is called ‘hanami’ and has been going on for many hundreds of years. The floral imagery permeates Japanese paintings, film and poetry dating back to AD 759.
Although there are many varities of cherry tree in Japan (something like 200 varieties) most bloom for just a couple of days in spring. The Japanese celebrate this time of the year with hanami parties: friends, family or work colleagues gather and sit on blankets or mats under the blossoming trees, to drink beer and saké, to share bento boxes, to sing, chat or just laze around admiring the spectacle beneath giant, feathery canopies of soft pink.
There is plenty of sakura-themed food and drink on offer at this time of the year. From cherry blossom cream puffs and pink ice creams to cherry flavoured tea, just about everything you can imagine has a dose of added ‘sakura’ for you to enjoy. (At our Ryokan in Nikko our attention was drawn to the Sakura-flavoured salt on offer.) There are fake cherry blossom branches decorating train stations and restaurants whilst anything that can be, is temporarily themed pink! I just love the way millions of people take time to appreciate nature, immersing themselves this way.
Even at night, viewing spots are crowded with people enjoying the blossoms in a beautiful, romantic atmosphere. Couples and groups go at night to enjoy the special mood created by cherry blossoms. Hanami at night is called yozakura. On such occasions, paper lanterns are hung in the trees to light up the night – a spectacular sight. We particularly enjoyed the pop-up champagne bars where you could sip a flute of pink bubbles and nibble on juicy strawberries
In our last weeks we were able to witness the falling cherry blossom snow, known as ‘hanafubuki’ which aptly means “flower snow storm”. And it really does looks like it’s snowing cherry blossom petals, with drifts forming on the ground and coating the surface of the lakes and streams. I was left with a slightly nostalgic feeling that the season was almost over, reminding me of the Japanese observance of the ephemeral nature of all living things 🌸
“One day we strolled down the Philosopher’s Path, which proved as enchanting as I had hoped in the fragrant pink bloom of spring. Since ancient times, the Japanese have heralded the arrival of the cherry blossoms because they symbolize the ephemeral beauty of life.
But it isn’t just the three or four days of open flowers that stirs the senses. It is their arrival and departure. Looking at a bud about to burst open offers the pleasurable anticipation of rebirth, while the soft scattering of petals on the ground is often considered the most beautiful stage of all because it represents the death of the flowers.”
Victoria Abbott Riccardi, “Untangling my Chopsticks”