A swan swims past cherry blossom branches in Kurashiki, Japan

Sakura Hanami – Cherry Blossoms in Japan

Cherry blossom or sakura is surely the most recognizable symbol of Japan. The five delicately pink petals with a little notch on each are absolutely beautiful, but how did they come to represent the whole country?

Many places have cherry trees and cherry blossoms, but few celebrate them as fervently as Japan does.

Cherry blossom or sakura is surely the most recognizable symbol of Japan. The five delicately pink petals with a little notch on each are absolutely beautiful, but how did they come to represent the whole country?

Welcome to the story of hanami, Japan’s yearly celebration that honors the fleeting life and beauty of the harbinger of spring.

A paper lantern hanging on a cherry tree with flowers blooming

Cherry Blossoms and New Beginnings

It’s not just spring – April marks the beginning of a whole new life cycle in Japan. The new school year, fiscal year, and hiring season all start on April 1st. It’s the time of renewal and new beginnings.

It all took root in the Nara period (710 to 794 AD), when farmers took the budding branches as a sign it was time to start planting rice. Soon enough, the blooming cherry tree became a symbol of a new spring.

A group a people sitting under Sakura trees enjoying a festival

Why Sakura, Specifically?

Flower appreciation is not unheard of, it exists in other cultures too. Traditional viewing of plum blossoms already came from Tang Dynasty China to Japan, but the early February plum (ume) bloom is rather a sign of persevering through the winter frost than a herald of spring.

Cherries, on the other hand, start to develop flowers after the last frost. The flowers are bright and beautiful, but so delicate that their petals fall off with the slightest gust of wind. A cherry tree in full bloom rarely has its flowers for more than a week, so the beautiful sight is special and cherished.

This fact makes the Japanese think about the fleeting nature of beauty and life. Paired with the spectacular sight of thousands of petals slowly falling like snow, a scatter of pinkish white on the ground and the sweet flowery scent, cherry blossoms envelop the beauty of spring in a single moment.

Sakura trees line the river in a large city

What is Hanami?

The act of appreciating sakura is called hanami (花見) – flower viewing. People go out for strolls and picnics in parks, simply soaking in the view and enjoying the beauty of nature in spring.

Day or night, alone or with family, a veritable party with food and drinks, or a simple walk around the neighborhood – it doesn’t matter: you only need a cherry tree in full bloom and appreciation for its beauty to do hanami. It’s a custom that most Japanese people try to enjoy every year, despite the limited time frame.

People on blankets viewing cherry blossoms
Hanami and Picnic in a Park

If you decide to spend your day of flower-viewing in a park, there are a few things (and rules) to keep in mind. During the season, you may come across large crowds, and that can mean a few things:

  • You may want to reserve your spot early in the morning. Check for park rules to make sure it’s ok to leave your tarp/blanket unattended.
  • Make sure eating and drinking is permitted in the park you choose for hanami.
  • The atmosphere is lively, but it’s still not ok to be too loud or take up too much space. Be considerate.
  • Absolutely don’t pick the flowers off of trees. Let nature do its thing, and appreciate the already short lifespan of the blossoms.
  • Feel free to stay until the evening! The trees may be lit up for a special yo-zakura “night sakura” experience.

Beautiful Sakura trees at night along a river

Sakura Forecast, or When to Enjoy Hanami?

All major news sources announce it – sakura season is anticipated every year. In fact, the Japan Meteorological Agency puts out sakura forecast with estimated dates when cherry blossoms are expected to bloom across the country each year.

Thanks to Japan’s geography, the country spreads across climate conditions, from the warm and tropical Okinawa in the south to the cold northern areas of Hokkaido.

Cherry trees first bloom in the south where the climate is warm, typically mid-March (sometimes as early as late February). Then, the pink fever spreads northwards until it finally reaches Tokyo (Kanto area) in late March and the northern parts of Tohoku and Hokkaido in late April or early May.

Types of Cherry Trees in Japan

But these forecasts usually only account for Yoshino Cherry, the most popular and widespread type of cherry tree in Japan.
If you can’t be there in time for this year’s hanami, don’t lose hope: There are various types of sakura trees in the country, and not all of them bloom at the same time or have flowers that last as short as Yoshino does.

  • Yoshino cherry is the most common kind of cherry tree. It’s recognizable for its 5-petal flower, white – slightly pink, with a little notch on each petal. This type of tree is not big, but it’s usually found in big groups, so that when a gust of wind touches upon a row of Yoshino cherries in full bloom, you’ll witness an incredible scene that reminds of snowfall.
    The flowers are big, and thanks to their size they point down – so that when you sit under the tree and look up, you’ll find yourself face-to-face with an abundance of little flowers. Look at the flowers, and they look back.
    Yoshino cherries don’t live a very long time (about 70 or 80 years on average, quite short for a tree), so the country is putting in a lot of effort to preserve the older trees in many of the biggest parks in the country.
A yoshino cherry tree
A Yoshino Cherry Tree
  • The weeping cherry tree, shidare-zakura, is a grand, spectacular view, with vibrant pink, flower-covered branches drooping similarly to willow trees. The thin, hanging branches remind of threads, so the tree is also called ito-zakura. Usually a lone tree, the shidare-zakura usually live a long time (for hundreds of years, one famous specimen in Fukushima is over 1000 years old), and many are designated and protected as natural monuments.
A weeping cherry tree sits on a hill
A Weeping Cherry Tree
  • The sakura from Kawazu, a town in Izu Peninsula not far from Tokyo, is famous for its early bloom in February and vibrant pink The warmer climate of the peninsula helps the trees bloom early and keep their flowers on the branches for a whole month. The Kawazu cherry is now spread across the country, but the town’s famous Kawazu-zakura Sakura Festival in very early spring is well worth the visit.
  • Wild cherry trees are widespread throughout remote areas, especially in the mountains, so they carry the name yama-zakura – mountain cherries. Unlike their cultivated counterparts, the maroon-colored yama-zakura leaves sprout at the same as the small, white flowers.
  • Yae-zakura is a common name for cherry trees that bloom in flowers with more than five petals. They may have anywhere between six and a hundred petals on a single flower, and come both as upright and weeping tree varieties. Yae-zakura often bloom later than the Yoshino cherry, so they’re perfect for hanami if you’re late to the party.
    The most impressive sight is kiku-zakura, named after the chrysanthemum flower. Another interesting type is named ukon-zakura after turmeric, because of the flower’s yellow flower.
A lovely chrysanthemum Sakura flower
A Chrysanthemum Sakura

Best Food to Eat During Hanami

What is a celebration without food?

Japanese have a common idiom, jokingly saying 花より団子 (hana yori dango – “sweets over flowers”) for the people that don’t care to look up – instead keeping their eyes peeled on the picnic food. Who could blame them, with such delicious seasonal varieties of common foods, all designed to celebrate the cherry blossoms:

  • In fact, there’s special hanami dango. This sweet and chewy skewered rice cake comes in three symbolic colors: pink to represent sakura buds, white to represent the blossom in full bloom, and green to represent the leaves.
  • Sakura mochi is a pink-colored rice cake with red bean paste filling wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf (yes, it’s edible).
  • Onigiri, rice balls, are loved as a practical food to eat on the go. During the season, you can buy them dyed pink (don’t let the color fool you, it’s still savory and very delicious).
  • From Starbucks to mom-and-pop coffee shops, you’ll get teas, coffees, lattes, and other drinks colored in pink or scented with cherry blossoms (and strawberry flavors). Not particularly game-changing in terms of taste, but very Instagrammable!

Sakura – also one of the most popular wagashi designs

Sakura Wagashi wrapped in a salted Sakura leaf
Sakura Wagashi

朝日に匂う – Fragrant in the Rising Sun

While the cherry fruit of a Japanese cherry tree is not particularly sweet or plump, the sweet fragrance of the trees blooming in spring pleases all senses.

Some of the most touching works of art coming from Japan is inspired by the ephemeral beauty of the cherry blossom – and its stirringly short life. From nursery rhymes and woodblock prints to rock songs and anime, sakura continues to excite artistic souls from all walks of life.

If you find yourself in Japan during sakura season, use the opportunity to feel as one with the spring, nature, and the people around you – hanami is truly an experience to remember.

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