Experiencing Sakura, Japan’s Mythic Cherry Blossom Festival
“Hanami” is the centuries-old practice of picnicking under a blooming cherry tree in Japan, and the experience of doing so in the cherry blossom epicenter of Kyoto is one of the world’s great sights. There are 600 different species of cherry blossom in Japan, and over 100 petals on each flower within the blossom of most of these species– but what makes the experience of hanami so revered throughout Japan and around the world is the symbolism of the blossom, which has come to represent a metaphor for mortality and the ephemeral nature of life. (Cherry blossoms bloom wildly and radiantly, but they only live for a short period of time.)
The average lifespan of a cherry blossom (or sakura in Japanese) is only 7 to 10 days. Accordingly, the Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks what is known as the sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, as it moves northward up the archipelago from Okinawa in January to Kyoto and Tokyo by the end of April. (The bloom radar and predictions of when the sakura trees will reach peak blossom is addressed during the weather segment of nightly news programs nation-wide.) The Japanese pay close attention to these forecasts and plan their spring visits to parks, shrines, and temples accordingly. This year, Garden Collage was on site for one of several “flower-viewing” parties in both Kyoto and Tokyo, and you’ll see images of what we saw there above and below.
The art of cherry blossom viewing is as informal as it sounds. There are over 1,000 popular hanami (sakura viewing spots) across Japan, and many native Japanese travel around the country at this time of year (April-May) in pursuit of beautiful blossom views and places to picnic underneath them with a bento box. Sometimes, one stumbles upon a single radiant tree in bloom behind an apartment building or while bike-riding along the river (see below).
The oldest sakura tree in Japan grows on the grounds of Jissoji Temple in the Yamanashi Prefecture and is a whopping 2000 years old— a time impressive enough to local botanists that the Japanese have given the tree a name (it’s called Yamataka Jindai Zakura). With a root circumference of an estimated 13.5 meters, the tree, which is designated a Natural Monument in Japan, was reportedly planted by the 12th emperor of Japan, Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, who reigned in 71-130 AD.
Today, the 100 Yen coin– one of the most common pieces of currency one is apt to see in Japan– depicts a rendering of a cherry blossom on the graphic side of the coin. So popular are cherry blossoms, in fact, that this time of year one is apt to spend several of these 100-Yen coins on a variety of cherry blossom-related food products commonly sold at bakeries across Japan (guilty). Chief among these local delicacies include sakura mochi— a sweet stuffed rice dumpling wrapped in an edible cherry blossom leaf (a vegetable that also frequently appears on farm-to-table kaiseki menus during cherry blossom season in Kyoto). Between the color and the variety of cherry trees that can be found outside of schools, government buildings, and along public canals and rivers, sakura in Japan is a sensory experience unlike any other. Within the cheerful pink blossoms that so gracefully adorn their boughs, a cherry tree’s flowers persist in the imagination long after the blooming period is over– a transience that makes the experience all the more beautiful and anticipated every spring.