One thing that instantly comes to mind when we think of Japan is the iconic sakura flower, or as it is more commonly known, the cherry blossom. The sakura flower can be found on a few trees of the prunus genus, but is most recognisable in its form on the Japanese cherry blossom. Present in many countries other than Japan, sakura has made its home in plenty of locations in the Northern Hemisphere with temperate climates. Nepal, India, Taiwan, Korea and China are just some of the other countries that are host to this beautiful and symbolic piece of nature. Despite its Western name, the fruit produced by the sakura varieties that have been cultivated for ornamental use is small and unpalatable; edible cherries are generally cultivated from other sakura-related plant species. The beautiful nature of the cherry blossom is appreciated far more for its symbolism and national significance. Let’s take a look at why the cherry blossom is such an embedded part of Japanese culture and how it is celebrated.
Symbolism of the Sakura
In Japan, the symbolism surrounding cherry blossom often refers to thoughts on human life with the glorious yet short-lived nature of the season acting as a reminder of our mortality. Similarly, cherry blossom symbolism is also linked to clouds due to the way that the flowers bloom in groups, again acting as a metaphor for the short nature of life. This sort of symbolism is often associated with Buddhist influences and the concept of ‘mono no aware’, meaning ‘the pathos of things’ that dates back to the 18th century.
Cherry Blossom and Rebirth
The cherry blossom is not only seen as a symbol of life and death but as a symbol of renewal. With the blossom creating dramatic and inspiring scenes during the Spring season, it’s no wonder that cherry blossom is so closely associated with this time of renewal and optimism where the Japanese calendar year begins, children return to school and workers start their new jobs.
‘Hanami’ is an incredibly popular Japanese tradition in which friends and family gather under a beautiful blooming sakura tree to celebrate the season. It is common for those who sit beneath the sakura in bloom to eat lunch and drink sake as a form of cheerful celebration. This custom dates back to the Nara period of Japanese history where the custom was limited to only the most elite of the Imperial Court, however, this tradition soon caught on and began to spread to samurai society. By the Edo period, gathering under the sakura was common amongst all members of society. As a way of encouraging more people to sit beneath the cherry blossom, Tokugawa Yoshimune, the ruler of Japan during the 1700s, planted areas filled with sakura trees, ready to be enjoyed and admired.
Celebration of the Cherry Blossom
Another traditional custom in Japan is the tracking of the ‘sakura zensen’, the cherry blossom front. Every year, both the Japanese Meteorological Agency and the public follow the sakura cherry blossom as it blooms northward through the country. The blossoming of the delicate sakura flowers begins in January in the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa, it then blooms in swathes across the nation before reaching Kyoto and Tokyo during the end of March. The cherry blossom then continues to make its annual appearance in areas of Japan with higher altitudes to finally arrive in Hokkaido after a few weeks. The people of Japan keep a close eye on the forecasts of the sakura, turning out in large groups at a number of parks, shrines and temples, accompanied by family and friends to watch the pretty petals dance in these traditional flower-viewing parties. This tradition celebrates the true beauty of the sakura and makes for the perfect view to enjoy whilst relaxing with those closest to you.
The celebration of the captivating colour and natural beauty of the sakura is an ancient Japanese tradition that is still upheld in modern Japan today. Rich in symbolism in Japanese culture, the influences of sakura can be found all over. From Japanese art and anime to clothing styles and stationery, this delicate flower is a renowned national flower and a true cultural icon of Japan.
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