Though the Imperial flower is the chrysanthemum the flower that captures the heart of the whole nation is the sakura (cherry blossom). Throughout Japan the tradition is one that almost ALL Japanese and an increasing number of non-Japanese as well enjoy.
From as early as January in Okinanawa to May in Hokkaido you can see groups of people out under the blossoms taking pleasure in all kinds of merriment, most fueled by beer and sake!
Here in Kyoto we can usually view the blossoms from mid March to mid April depending on location and temperature. (So the season will be over by the time this is posted!) Kyoto is a university town and as April is the beginning of the school year one can see families running around from the education centers to the parks and temples that are famous for cherry blossoms. Many cherish this memory with their entrance into higher education. As night viewing (yozakura) is also popular many of the temples light up to splendidly showcase their trees.
It is thought the idea for hanami may have been ‘imported’ from Tang Dynasty China (618 ~ 907) and then it would have been the ume (plum blossom) that was admired. However in some of the oldest writings of Japan there is reference to the sakura and to hanami. For example the Nihon Shoki, the second oldest Japanese book, makes reference to hanami as early as the 3rd century, in the Manyoshu, the oldest collection of poetry in Japan there are many poems dedicated to cherry blossoms, and in the world’s oldest novel, The Tale of Genji. In the story by Lady Murasaki one can read about the court nobles enjoying the hanami, along with other forms of leisure! Viewing the sakura became popular in Kyoto as a pastime for the aristocracy and samurai class in the Heian Period (794 ~ 1185). By the Edo period (1600 ~ 1867) it had spread to the common people as well and has been in ‘full bloom’ for all since then!
The analogy of the samurai and the cherry blossom is almost cliché but not to mention it would be amiss. It is said they identified with the blossom as it lives a short and glorious life falling to the ground at its most beautiful moment. What more could a loyal samurai hope for...
Depending on the source there are over 300 or 400 kinds of cherry blossoms! Pink is definitely the colour of the season and it is reflected in many things from food to fashion. Sakura mochi is popular and there is even a tea with the petals of the sakura in it.
In the way of tea the season adds a wide selection of ideas for sweets, utensils and poetic names. Hanafubuki is a poetic name that suggests the falling cherry blossoms that appear like snow blowing in the wind.
If you do get a chance to visit Kyoto in the cherry blossom season here are a few locations to check out...NOT a definitive list by any means!
- Places Maruyama Park
- Philosopher’s Walk / Hirano Shrine
- Imperial Palace Nijo Caslte
- Heian Shrine
- Okazaki Canal Kiyamachi
- Botanical Gardens
I personally enjoy the incongruous blossoms that you can see as you walk around some of Kyoto’s residential areas. Sometimes just a glimpse of a branch over a wall is all you can see but still it can give one pause to enjoy the serenity of the moment.