Cherry Blossoms – Introduction
Cherry blossoms are undeniably one of the planet’s greatest visual spectacles. There’s nothing quite like taking a stroll down a path lined by flowering cherry trees, as a gentle wind carries the petals about on its currents like something out of a dream or fantasy novel.
So popular are cherry blossoms that they are one of the chief elements in Japanese tourism. Aside from viewing the temples of Kyoto, or the maze-like streets of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, witnessing cherry blossoms is usually on the itinerary of anyone traveling to Japan in the spring.
Places to View Cherry Blossoms
Most major Japanese cities will feature at least one place to view cherry blossoms in their full splendor, but more often than not you’ll find them everywhere. The classic image of a temple surrounded by cherry blossoms (both on the tree and scattered about paths and gardens) is a common sight in Kansai district’s Kyoto, and pretty much all schools and government buildings will have cherry trees planted around them.
In the United States, Washington DC’s Tidal Basin is one of the best places for viewing in the country. Having received over 6000 trees as gifts from Japan, their delivery has created a sight so popular that an annual festival is held in honor of the flower.
Historical and Cultural Significance
The cherry tree, or “sakura” in Japanese, is native to the Himalayas, and East Asia. Over 300 species can be found in Japan alone, thanks to early efforts to cultivate and crossbreed the tree. Originally a Chinese custom, Hanami, or flower-viewing, was adopted during the Heian period (794-1191 CE) as part of a growing trend to emulate Chinese culture.
The practice of Hanami allowed nobility to mix with artists, aristocrats and other members of high society for parties under the trees. This has led to the sakura as being referred to as “the Japanese party tree” in some literature. In Japan, cherry blossoms symbolize the transience of life due to their relatively short blooming times.
They have also come to represent clouds thanks to their nature of blooming en masse. Falling cherry blossoms become useful as metaphors for fallen warriors and as a result were closely tied to Samurai, Japan’s traditional warrior-elite.
In modern Japan, sakura adorn all manner of fashion items (especially kimonos, the traditional Japanese dress), as well as advertisements and decorations. Many songs and poems have been composed in honor of cherry blossoms. So popular are they that Sakura is a common name given to Japanese girls.
During the Second World War, the cherry blossoms became a motivational and inspiration icon for the nation. Pilots would paint cherry blossoms on the nose of their aircraft before disembarking upon suicide missions against American carrier groups. The Japanese government encouraged citizens to believe that the souls of fallen warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms.
Japan’s most treasured variety of sakura is the Somei Yoshino variety. It boasts flowers of nearly pure white with the faintest hints of pink. The cherry blossoms appear before the leaves begin to sprout, giving the tree an almost entirely-white appearance.
This breed gets its name from the village of Somei, which is now part of Toshima in Tokyo prefecture (Kanto district). It was developed in the late nineteenth century at the end of the Edo period and the beginning of the Meiji period.
Cherry Blossoms – Conclusion
So ingrained are cherry blossoms in Japanese culture that some romantic poets have often theorized that a life spent in search of a perfect blossom would be a life well-spent, with not a moment wasted. Indeed, it is hard to bring oneself to leave a garden in which sakura are prominent. There are few stronger symbols of peace and serenity in the world.
A temple garden prominently featuring sakura can act as a meditation aid to the monks residing within, who may find it easier to order and calm their thoughts amidst the drifting flowers. This is worth considering if you’re looking to design a meditation garden for your own home. The presence of sakura is a great inspiration when you desire to seek tranquility, and will assist you in developing a fresh outlook on life.
When planning a trip to Japan, try to schedule it in the early spring if at all possible. You can find out when sakura festivals are held to help you in planning. It’s definitely worth taking the time to include a stop to view these marvels of nature, and you’ll surely come away from Japan with nothing but pleasant memories. Whether taking in the temples in Kyoto, browsing the shops of Tokyo or going for a walk in Sapporo’s Odori Koen, cherry blossoms will prove themselves a welcome companion to you and your family.
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