Of the many symbols one can think of when hearing Japan, the Cherry Blossom is definitely one of the most popular. But have you wondered why the Sakura trees and their flowers are so important to the Japanese culture? Let’s find out!
The Importance of the Cherry Blossom in Japanese Culture
The Sakura tree and its blossoms entered the imagery of Japan in the Heian period, closely connected to the Buddhist influence that was felt back at the time, as the short life span of the cherry flowers is an everlasting metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life. This concept echoes over many, if not all, aspects of the Japanese history, art and its way of life itself.
The Sakura and Zen
As stated above, the short life span of the cherry blossom is a metaphor for the transience of life, and this is a major theme of Buddhism. The flower being so bright and beautiful, yet lasting so little has been adopted as a symbol at first by the aristocratic warriors of feudal Japan, but later on by all the military class of Japan. Zen Buddhism spread like wildfire in feudal Japan because it attributed less importance to the knowledge of sutras and Buddhist doctrine, and more to the practice of meditation, perfectly integrating with the warrior’s life. As such, the concept of impermanence was key to the warrior, who knew his life could be struck down in any moment, just like a cherry blossom could fall for a mere windstorm.
History and Literary References
The Sakura however, is not to be connected to Zen Buddhism alone, as we said, the impermanence of all things is a theme of Buddhism in general. This concept was embodied, in the Heian period (before the beginning of the Feudal period of Japan) by the Mono no Aware, that can be translated as “empathy towards things”, meaning an incredible sensitivity for everything that was caught in the moment, like a sunset, a glimpse of a woman, or a cherry blossom.
After the Heian period, Sakura became a symbol for the mortality of warriors, as already mentioned, so much so that a famous phrase was coined: 花は桜木人は武士, meaning “Among the blossoms, the cherry blossoms, among men, the warrior”. The proverb signifies that in that particular period of time, the Sakura was considered the best flower, just as the warrior, the best man.
Even after the end of the medieval age in Japan, Sakura remained a strong symbol for those fighting with their lives for the sake of the country. During World War II the first kamikaze unit had a subunit called Yamazakura, wild cherry blossom, and the flowers were often painted on the side of the airplanes before embarking for suicide missions. Some Japanese pilots even took some branches of Sakura with them before leaving. The Japanese Government even encouraged the people to believe that the souls of the dead warriors were reincarnated in Sakura blossoms.
Cherry Blossoms Today
Today the symbol of the Sakura flower is still extremely felt in Japan, and it is possible to find it on a wide array of items, ranging from kimono patterns to everyday items. There are also many food items available in the taste of Sakura. But of course, the most modern typical expression that shows the cultural attachment of the Japanese people to this flower, is the Hanami, the flower viewing, typically of Sakura Blossoms in spring but also of plum blossoms. The custom of celebrating the Hanami is so popular that the every year the Weather Bureau announces the Sakura-Zensen (桜前線), a forecast indicating when the Sakura trees will bloom along Japan, usually ranging from the end of March to early May, heavily depending on the climate. The Hanami, born in the Nara period (mostly focusing on plums) came to have the modern meaning already in the Heian period, consisting basically in groups of people gathering to view the flowers blooming. In many parks, during the blooming of the Sakura trees temporary lanterns and decorations are hung, to allow people to practice the yozakura (夜桜), or the Hanami at night.
Enjoy Hanami at its best
For people wishing to enjoy and participate in the Hanami, the best advice would be to visit Japan in April, as the blooming of the cherry blossoms varies through the latitude of Japan, going (as stated above) from the end of March to early May. For the purpose of allowing people to enjoy the Hanami to its full extent, the Japan Cherry Blossom Association (www.sakuranokai.or.jp) has compiled a list of Japan’s Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots. The list was created following several criteria, such as the popularity of the locations, the amount of trees, and the historic value and covers all the prefectures of Japan. While the list on the official website is provided only in Japanese here are some of our suggestions, taken from these locations: the Sakura Namiki Street (Shinhidaka, Hokkaido), the Kasumiga Castle Park (Nihonmatsu, Fukushima), the Ueno Onshi Park (Tokyo), the Sumida Park (Tokyo), the Cherry Blossom Village (Ito, Shizuoka), Arashiyama (Kyoto), the Osaka Castle Park (Osaka), the Himeji Castle (Himeji, Hyogo), the Matsue Castle Park (Matsue, Shimane), the Seibu Park (Tokushima), the Kumamoto Castle (Kumamoto), and the Nago Castle Park (Nago, Okinawa). Thanks to the Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots list, it is possible to enjoy the Hanami in any part of Japan you are planning on visiting!
In conclusion, having a better understanding of the meaning of the Sakura blossom means understanding the Japanese way of life, as it is a symbol rooted in its history and having the chance to enjoy Hanami is a great experience I would suggest to anyone who has the chance to visit Japan in spring.