The English do rather like their roses, and the Dutch famously have a thing about tulips, but nowhere is a nation so thoroughly besotted with a flower as the Japanese are with their cherry blossoms. If you had to choose a single quintessential facet of Japanese culture, it would be hard to come up with a more satisfactory candidate than appreciating those delicately pink flowering species of the genus Prunus.
Other countries largely grow cherry trees for their succulent red fruit. But the Japanese plant the trees just because they happen to like looking at them. In a land where cherry blossoms are a national symbol—and even the butch, rough-and-tumble national rugby team is nicknamed “Cherry Blossoms”—the actual fruit is not especially cheap, and most cherries on sale are imported. The Japanese word sakura generally refers to the many species of flowering cherry, and from around mid-March to mid-April you would have to walk around with blinkered eyes to be unaware that the things are in bloom. In public parks, along riverbanks, in school grounds, in public and private gardens, there can be such a profusion of sakura as to give the impression that you are walking under a colossal canopy of the gentle pink blooms. Even in the urban thick of big cities, the blossoms are absolutely evident, with shopping streets and supermarkets decorated with plastic versions of the flowers. In some cases, the plastic facsimiles make their appearance at the frosty end of January—a couple of months before the actual trees flicker into floral life.
Stretching from subtropical coral seas of Okinawa to winter pack-ice seas of northern Hokkaido, Japan straddles quite a climatic range. And so cherry blossoms do not come into bloom at the same time. The flowering begins in the south, and gradually the pink wave laps north. The Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks the sakura zensen (“cherry blossom front”) as it makes its way up the Japanese archipelago, and it is constantly reported on radio, TV and the Internet and keenly monitored by an entire nation.
Many Japanese recognize in the form and color of the blossoms their country’s traditional values of purity and simplicity. The preference for delicate sakura may be contrasted with Chinese taste, which is for the flashier peony. The great Japanese scholar of the Edo period (1603–1867) Motoori Norinaga once wrote that if someone wished to understand the essence of the Japanese spirit it was in the fragrant cherry blossom in the early morning. Reflecting the great Japanese appetite for those flowers, around 300 varieties of sakura are in existence.
The appeal of the cherry in Japan goes beyond simply admiring an attractive flower. Sakura blooms briefly before falling and scattering. Thus, it is considered a striking instance of life’s ephemeral beauty, which is highly regarded by Japanese. As might be expected, the country’s appreciation of the flowering cherry has a long history. In ancient times, however, it was not the cherry, but the blossom usually referred to as the Japanese plum, ume (it is actually more closely related to the apricot), that was regarded as the floral acme of elegance.
In the magnificent poetry collection of the Man’yoshu, which was completed in 759, there are almost three times more references to plum than to cherry blossoms. It was not until several centuries later that the cherry superseded the plum as the poets’ prime floral subject of attention and the plum yielded its top spot in the national affection to the native cherry blossom.
Plum blossoms are of course still highly regarded. But when Japanese talk of hanami (flower-viewing parties) they generally have cherry blossoms in mind. When the earliest flower-viewing parties took place, in the Nara period (710–794), it was of course the plum that hogged the attention. It was not until the Heian period (794–1185) that hanami came to be synonymous with cherry blossoms. As with many cultural aspects of Japan, the practice of hanami was something that the aristocracy originally kept to themselves. Not until the Edo period did the hoi polloi come to join in the festivities as they snacked and supped sake under the flowering trees.
Hanami parties are held wherever the sakura is in bloom, and in normal years, thousands of people congregate under the blossoms at popular spots. Those areas under the trees surely contain the greatest concentration of poised camera lenses in the country. The drink does flow, and the party spirit runs high. And it can be hard then to avoid the impression that the thoughts of revelers are rather more focused on sake bottles and karaoke machines than meditating pensively about life’s poignant transience as symbolized by the evanescent blooms above.
As well as eyeing the overhead cherry blossoms, many people at hanami may actually dine on the stuff. The blossoms and leaves are edible, and they are used as food ingredients in Japan. The leaves are pickled in salt and used to wrap pink-colored rice cake (mochi) to produce the confection of sakura-mochi. Other sakura sweets abound, among which there is sakura-manju, which consists of anko (red bean paste) stuffed into a bun of flour dough and topped with a salted cherry blossom.
The general feeling of bonhomie and togetherness that exists in Japan when the cherry is in bloom was captured rather well by Kobayashi Issa, the poet who died in 1828 and who is regarded as one of the country’s four great masters of the short verse form known as haiku:
Under the cherry
blossoms nobody is an
This year of course, the viral ravages of SARS-CoV-2 have seen to it that there will sadly be no large hanami parties or celebrations. The blossoms will be there, but the convivial spirit will probably be in short supply. However, the sight of the magnificent flowers should at least inspire a little hope and cause people to reflect that at the end of every tunnel, light is always to be found.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.