Brief Overview of Japanese Cherry Blossoms
Sakura, the Symbol of Japan
In Japan, Sakura (cherry blossoms) symbolize clouds due to their nature of blooming en masse, besides being an enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition that is often associated with Buddhist influence, and which is embodied in the concept of mono no aware. The association of the sakura with mono no aware dates back to 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga. The transience of the blossoms, the extreme beauty and quick death, has often been associated with mortality; for this reason, sakura are richly symbolic, and have been utilized often in Japanese art, manga, anime, and film, as well as at musical performances for ambient effect. The flower is also represented on all manner of consumer goods in Japan, including kimono, stationery, and dishware.
Symbolic Flower of Japanese Beautiful Spring
Japanese people are familiar with sakura as a symbol of spring, which signify the coming of spring when they bloom all together at the beginning of spring. It is also a season word in haiku, and the blossom forecasts and prompt reports are signals of the coming of spring for Japanese people. Also, cherry trees have been planted in many schools as a spring flower which boosts the mood of the entering ceremony. It is the spring season for Japanese people when cherry blossoms are in bloom. After all the kinds of sakura finish falling throughout the country, it becomes late spring and the summer comes. The view of sakura is so popular and therefore cherry trees are planted in many places. They are often planted along a street or river making a row, which makes a flower scene all around. They are also often planted in school fields. There are also a lot of shrines and temples which have grown cherry trees since ancient times. Some organizations which have cherry trees such as shrines and temples often hold cherry blossom festivals.
Sakura appears in many Japanese Arts and Cultures
Widely celebrated in Japanese literature, poetry, and art, sakura carry layered meanings. For example, because they bloom briefly, the blossoms are often seen as a metaphor for the ephemeral beauty of living. At the same time, the joyful tradition of hanami (flower viewing) is an old and ongoing tradition. The practice was first associated with plum blossoms before becoming almost exclusively linked with sakura by the Heian Period (794–1185). With wider exposure to Japanese art and culture in the nineteenth century, audiences around the world embraced sakura as a particularly Japanese cultural hallmark. Norinaga MOTOORI, a scholar of ancient Japanese thought and culture, wrote a poem 'What is Japanese spirit? It is Yamazakura blossoms in the morning sun' as the concrete example of Japanese spirit of 'Mono no aware' (graceful, tasteful, sad feeling). Also in the Meiji period Inazo NITOBE wrote in the opening sentence of his book "Bushido" that bushido (Chivalry) is like cherry blossoms which symbolize Japan.
More than 600 kinds of Species in Japan
In Japan more than 600 kinds of both endemic species and hybrids grow wild. There are 10 natural kinds of sakura including Yamazakura, Oshimazakura, Edohigan. There are a lot of cultivated varieties which were developed to improve the number and colors of petals and appearance of flowers and how it blooms. Among them, the cultivated varieties of Yamazakura are collectively called Satozakura and those of double- flowered kinds are called Yaezakura. In ancient times, Yamazakura (P. jamasakura) in mountains and double-flowered sakura were common. The famous cherry trees in Mt. Yoshino are also Yamazakura. In Fujinomiya City, Shizuoka Prefecture, there is Kariyado no Gebazakura, the oldest Yamazakura in Japan, which has been designated as a special Japanese national treasure. There are also Nihon Godai Zakura (the five major cherry trees in Japan) which have lived long time and been famous. The fruits are edible and the blossoms and leaves pickled in salt are also used as food. Because it is the most familiar blossom for the Japanese people, it is considered one of the national flowers in general (not defined by law), and since the Meiji period the crests of cherry blossom have been attached to army and school caps and also used as badges of rank. Presently it is still used as the crests of the police and the Self-Defense Forces and others. The 100 yen coin depicts sakura on its front side.
Documentary of Japanese Cherry Blossoms "Sakura" (26:42)
Features of Sakura Cherry Blorroms
Fleeting Sakura Bloom lasting less than 2 Weeks
The times of flowering of sakura differ according to the species, but they bloom in mid-March at the earliest and in mid-May at the latest. Yamazakura is in bloom until late March, Somei Yoshino until early April, Yaezakura until mid-April and Kasumizakura until early May. Especially it is seen obviously in Somei Yoshino that sakura open before the leaves come. As for the period of time of flowering, 'Somei Yoshino' which is especially popular for Hanami (flower viewing) is shortest and the flowers fall only one week after the full bloom. Also temperatures and rains affect the period of time of flowering. If cold weather returns in the season of sakura, the cooled flowers live longer and if it rains after blooming, they fall earlier. In school grounds of elementary and other schools, Yaezakura trees are often planted along with Somei Yoshino, because Yaezakura is in bloom longer than Somei Yoshino, therefore people can see the flowers at the time of entrance into schools. The sakura in the period from falling flowers and coming of new leaves until early summer or later are called Hazakura (cherry tree in leaf). The leaves of Genus Cerasus are mostly oval with serrated edges. Many of these leaves also have fine hairs on their surfaces. The leaves of cherry trees turn to fall colors in the autumn.
Very Sensitive to a Damage of Tree
If a sakura tree is harmed, it can easily begin to decay from the damaged area. A proverb 'The fools who cut cherry trees, the fools who don't cut plum trees' derives from this property of cherry trees.
Cherry trees are often weakened when visitors break off twigs and branches at flower viewing parties. If a tree has too many branches, it can be grown back by proper pruning. In Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture, Somei Yoshino was successfully recovered by applying the pruning technique for apple trees. At pruning, unnecessary branches should be cut from the bases and the cut ends should be disinfected and protected by protective materials.
Horticultural Technology improved Sakura Species
Many kinds of cherry trees send out tillers. There are relatively easily denatured kinds such as Edohigan, Yamazakura, Oshimazakura, which were therefore used often for improvements of species, along with the development of horticultural technology. The representative example is Somei Yoshino, which has the characteristics of both Oshimazakura and Edohigan. Also, mutation of sakura of a twig is sometimes seen in Yamazakura and others, and the cutting is planted or grafted as a new variety. In Japan three major cherry trees have lived longer than a thousand years. Healthy cherry trees bloom beautifully even when they become old.
Sakura for Food
Some ornamental cherry trees also produce red fruits, but they are generally not eaten. The edible cherry fruit commonly called 'Sakuranbo' comes from Seiyomizakura, a western species which is also called 'Oto,' although 'Oto' originally refers to Shinamizakura, which is a different species from Seiyomizakura. Pickled sakura in salt give a unique aroma and they are added on Japanese sweets and bean-jam buns as a kind of herb. Salt-pickled blossoms are open in a cup of tea or hot water and drunk at festive events. Sakurayu (salt-pickled blossoms in hot water) is often drunk at events such as weddings and formal marriage meetings in place of green tea, to avoid the situation of 'Ocha o nigosu' (making tea turbid – evading the point). Sakuramochi (Japanese sweets consisting of pink rice cake and red bean paste) are wrapped with cherry leaves pickled in salt. Sakura tree is also often used as wood smoking chips.
Culture of Hanami
Nationwide Event to appreciate Lovely Sakura
Hanami is a custom of enjoying the beauty of flowers, especially cherry blossoms and the arrival of spring. However, hanami almost always means a party to be held under cherry trees with blooming flowers. Cherry trees are seen all over Japan, and since cherry trees in the same region blossom at the same time during Spring and the flowers fall in a short time, often only lasting around two week, the cherry blossoms are very impressive and are seen as an important seasonal symbol for Japanese people and harbingers of Spring. The short period in full bloom and the beauty of the flowers are often likened to the fragility of human life. To enjoy admiring sakura and drinking Sake (alcohol beverage) is called hanamizake and is considered a refined custom. Based on the philosophy of Yin and Yang, the Yin of sakura and the Yang of the picnics are complementary.
Hanami is enjoyed in almost entire Japan
In more than half the areas of Japan, the blooming period is April, which coincides with the beginning of the fiscal year for companies and the start of a new school year for Japanese schools. However in certain parts of Kyushu, the Chugoku and Shikoku Regions sakura start blooming in March when school children are on holiday ahead of the start of a new term for school, and in the Tohoku Region and Hokkaido sakura start blooming in May. Originally, there was no custom of holding hanami parties in Okinawa Prefecture. The typical cherry tree of Okinawa Prefecture is the Kanhizakura (Taiwan cherry) and it blooms in January when Kyushu and other regions north of Kyushu are in midwinter. Similarly, the custom of hanami is not as common in eastern and northern Hokkaido, and instead, it's a custom to enjoy a feast called 'kanpukai' (maple-leaf viewing) during the season of autumn leaves.
Fascinating Scenery in Hanami Season
Viewing sakura at night is called 'yozakura o miru' or 'yozakura kenbutsu,' and it is unique to cherry blossoms. Some famous spots such as Ueno Onshi Park in Tokyo temporarily display paper lanterns for yozakura (night viewing of cherry blossom). Sakura Fubuki (lit "Cherry Blossoms Blowing like Snow") refers to the simultaneous falling of petals and the beauty of such state is admired as part of hanami, and after all petals have fallen from the trees they are called Hazakura (leaf cherry trees). It is thought that hanami is not complete without hanami dango (rice dumpling). Since the Edo period, hanami dango have been an indispensable part of ordinary people's hanami picnics. The proverb 'hana yori dango' (dumplings are preferable to flowers) has its origins in the eating of dango at hanami parties and makes fun of people's tendency to choose a more tangible substance such as dango over the abstract act of viewing flowers. Even a single cherry tree tree is enough for enjoying hanami. When hanami is held under a cherry tree which is designated a natural treasure, or a historical cherry tree or plum tree, a tea-ceremony place is often set up.
More than 1200 years History of Hanami
Hanami is believed to have originated in an event which was performed for the nobles during the Nara period. During the Nara period, plum blossoms which were just brought in from China were viewed, but sakura were blooming all over during the Heian period. The change in people's interest was reflected in waka poems, and "Manyoshu" (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves) contains 40 waka poems for cherry blossoms and approximately 100 waka poems for plum blossoms, however, those numbers were reversed in "Kokin Wakashu" (A Collection of Ancient and Modern Japanese Poetry) of Heian period. The word 'Hana' (flowers) started to mean sakura around this time.
Once Hanami was an Imperial Festival
According to "Nihon Koki" (Later Chronicles of Japan), Emperor Saga held an imperial festival of the cherry blossom called 'Hana no en no setsu' in 812 at Shinsen-en Temple. It's thought that this was the first viewing of sakura on record. The place to hold this event was changed to the Imperial Court in 831, and this event was gradually being accepted as one of regular programs organized by the Emperor. The hanami scene was described in 'Hana no En' of "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji). While there is a description of a feast admiring Japanese wisteria in "Genji Monogatari," 'Hana' (flower) had been used as a synonym for sakura by that time, so a feast admiring flowers other than sakura was not meant to be called hanami or hana no en.
Hanami Culture spread all over Japan
Kenko YOSHIDA explained the difference between a noble-style hanami and a countryside style hanami in "Tsurezure Gusa" (the Essays in Idleness), and it is learnt that even the local samurai warrior society was enjoying a hanami feast in the early Muromachi period. It is understood from paintings that out-door hanami was held in the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The largest-scaled hanami in that period was Daigo no Hanami which was held by famous samurai lord Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI. It is believed that the custom of hanami was widespread among ordinary people in the Edo period since the shogun Yoshimune TOKUGAWA had cherry trees planted in many spots in Edo and encouraged people to view the sakura. Mt. Atago is one of the most famous Hanami spots in Edo (modern Tokyo). Rakugo (Japanese comic story telling) stories about hanami during this period are "Nagaya no Hanami" (Hanami at tenement house) and "Atamayama" (Mt. Head).
Best Opportunity to enjoy Good Food and Good Sake
Traditionally, the festival is about enjoying the trees and their beautiful flowers. Just walking under the trees and enjoying spring weather is a great experience. However, people don`t only go for the flowers. Many go for the food and drink. Where ever hanami is being celebrated you will see a great many foods (and sake) being consumed such as sushi, yakitori, traditional Japanese bento (lunch boxes) … whatever takes your fancy.
Cherry Blossom Front
Special Forecast of Sakura blooming of Japan
Cherry Blossom Front is a line graph illustrating the forecasted blooming dates of sakura (primarily of Someiyoshino (Prunus yedoensis)) in various locations of Japan. This line graph shows that Cherry Blossom Front lands the southern Kyushu and Shikoku areas in late March, subsequently moving northward in ascending order of latitude values of locations starting from the northern Kyushu and Shikoku areas, the Seto Inland Sea coast, the Kanto region, the Hokuriku region, the Tohoku region and finally reaching Hokkaido in early May annually.
Seasonal Tradition of Spring
The Japan Meteorological Agency issues its first 'forecast of sakura blooming dates' of the year on the first Wednesday of March. The agency subsequently continues to forecast sakura blooming dates with appropriate adjustments on Wednesdays until the eighth report which is issued in late April. The sakura blooming forecasts for the locations including Hokuriku, the Kanto-Koshin regions (which include Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Gunma, Tochigi, Ibaraki, Chiba, Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures), Tokai, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu are issued during the first three reports of the year. When five or six blossoms have opened, the agency reports that sakura are 'flowering.'
Yoshino Cherry Blossom
The Most Famous Sakura in Japan and the World
Yoshino cherry or Somei Yoshino (Prunus * yedoensis) is a hybrid cherry probably between Prunus speciosa (Oshima zakura) as father plant and Prunus pendula f. ascendens (Edo higan) as mother. It occurs as a natural hybrid in Japan and is now one of the most popular and widely planted cultivated flowering cherry blossom (sakura) in temperate climates worldwide.
Description of Somei Yoshino
Prunus × yedoensis is a small, deciduous tree that at maturity grows to be 5 to 12 metres (16–39 ft) (rarely 15 metres (49 ft)) tall. It grows well in hardiness zones 5–8 and does well in full sun and moist but well drained soil. The leaves are alternately arranged, 6 to 15 centimetres (2.4–5.9 in) long and 4 to 7 centimetres (1.6–2.8 in) broad, with a serrated margin; they are often bronze-toned when newly emerged, becoming dark green by summer. The flowers emerge before the leaves in early spring; they are fragrant, 3 to 3.5 centimetres (1.2–1.4 in) in diameter, with five white or pale pink petals. The flowers grow in clusters of five or six together. The fruit, a small cherry, is a globose drupe 8 to 10 millimetres (0.31–0.39 in) in diameter; they are an important source of food for many small birds and mammals, including Japanese robins and Japanese thrushes. The fruit contain little flesh and much concentrated red juice, which can stain clothing and brick. The fruit is only marginally sweet to the human palate.
Yoshino Cherry is originated in Tokyo
Because of its fragrant, light pink flowers, manageable size, and elegant shape, the Yoshino cherry is often used as an ornamental tree. Many cultivars have been selected; notable examples include 'Akebono', 'Ivensii', and 'Shidare Yoshino'. From the Edo period to the beginning of the Meiji period, gardeners and craftsman who made the village at Somei in Edo (now Komagome, Tokyo) grew somei yoshino. They first offered them as Yoshinozakura, but in 1900, they were renamed somei yoshino by Dr. Fujino.
Yoshino Cherry gives Delight to Western People
The Yoshino cherry was introduced to Europe and North America in 1902. This tree, along with the cultivar Kwanzan (derived from the related Prunus serrulata), is responsible for the spectacular pink show each spring in Washington D.C. and other cities. Several of 2000 Japanese cherry trees given to the citizens of Toronto by the citizens of Tokyo in 1959 were planted in High Park also.
Five Greatest Japanese Single Sakura
Miharu TakizakuraFukushima Prefecture
(over 1,000 years old)
Kariyado no GebazakuraShizuoka Prefecture
(over 800 years old)
Ishido UrazakuraSaitama Prefecture
(over 800 years old)
(over 1,800 years old)
(over 1,500 years old)