It’s that time of year again! Yes, springtime is upon us! It’s time to shed the winter coats and don light jackets to venture out into the blossoming of Mother Nature’s beauty. In Japan, springtime is also the beginning of sakura, or better known to westerners as cherry blossom season.
While it’s no wonder that people love watching velvety pink and white blossoms wake up to the crisp morning sun for their beauty, the significance of sakura to the Japanese people isn’t often explored on this side of the world.
There are countless tanka, Japanese poems, written about the ever resilient cherry blossoms dating back to the times of oral tradition and documented as early as the Heian period, years 794-1185. Imagine sitting on the viewing deck or in the garden of a noble household with nothing but the gentle breeze and nature’s creatures playing music. Women taking up their brushes to keep their diaries and write messages to lovers near or far. Hiragana was gently curling itself into the Japanese writing system amongst adapted kanji characters from China and was on the rise after being created by women.
The Heian period also saw the rise of it’s most famous warriors, the samurai. The samurai became symbolized by sakura because of it’s tenacity and adaptability. Although the flowers are delicate and beautiful, the trees from which they stem are able to grow in all directions. Most trees have trunks that grow up and branches that fan out, but the sakura trees are very different. Their trunks can move and bend, creating unique and beautiful looks unbound by the standards of other trees that grace the gardens of palaces, shrines, temples and parks all over Japan. They are accessible to both the elite and the public.
Japan is famous for its hanami, or viewing parties. The Japanese are still very in tuned with nature and respect it for what it gives. Hanami can be seen as a time or reflection and a time to get together with family and friends. Even some companies enjoy hanami parties and it’s not uncommon to see businesspeople sitting out under sakura branches at a nearby park with co-workers during lunch hours and after work. Hanami can be treated like a picnic. These parties are great during the day or at night, when the trees are lit up.
Sakura season in Japan is taken very seriously and there is always a posted yearly forecast for when the flowers will be blossoming all over the country. Check it out here.
If you’re planning to have your own hanami please remember to be respectful of the rules where you’re having it. Also, don’t be alarmed if there are a few rowdy people nearby and no, it’s not customary to climb the trees. It’s probably a one-way ticket out of your location.
Bring a book of tanka to read and try to imagine what it was like all of those years ago when they were written. Sometimes, I like to imagine the place I’m in without modern buildings or people texting instead of talking to the person next to them. It really gives you a new perspective and respect for the culture. In fact, most young Japanese people don’t think about their ancestors and will be surprised by your newfound appreciation of their roots.
Buy the sakura flavored things! While nature is beautiful you can find ‘sakura’ flavored things just about on every shelf. Unlike rose flavored foods and drinks, sakura flavor doesn’t really have any floral taste to it. It’s actually really sweet and pretty artificial. From dango (traditional Japanese glutenous rice balls) on sticks to the Starbucks drink of the season to potato chips, just about everything has that unique seasonal twist. I was quickly addicted to the sweet, sour taste of sakura Pepsi. So, grab a smorgasbord and go nuts with your friends or loved ones under the sakura trees.
Sometimes nearby shrines or temples will be holding a festival and you can partake in the festivities. It’s also a good idea to buy food from the stalls and then head over to your hanami location. Bring a mat, tarp, or blanket to stake out your spot because it gets really crowded, especially on weekends.
Shrines, temples, and castles make gorgeous backdrops to any hanami party but they’re also extremely crowded. My advice is that you check out local parks in your area or research some pretty places on the internet.
I went to Chidorigafuchi in Tokyo. You can walk the sakura lined sidewalks to Ginza and the Imperial Palace while you’re there. My friend and I were able to take out a paddle boat to row along the moat of the palace. You get some really beautiful views of the palace and the trees. It’s also great for couples and is very romantic, especially if you go right before they turn the lights on to illuminate the trees.
If you can’t get to Japan for sakura season there are some great places on the east coast to check out the trees. Washington D.C. and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in New York have festivals too. In fact, the trees on the National Mall were gifts from Japan to the United States.
Where do you go to appreciate sakura/cherry blossom season? Share in the comments below! Also, don’t forget to like this article and follow Sweets and Geeks here on WordPress and at instagram.com/sweetsandgeeks
See you next time on Weekends in Japan!