Cherry Blossoms the Quintessential Japanese Experience
Most people link the image of cherry blossoms with Japan. Like sushi, samurais and geisha, cherry blossoms have become almost synonymous with the Western view of the Japanese culture. During the few weeks in spring when the blossoms make their appearance, Japan is full of festivals, cherry blossom viewing parties (hanami) and celebration. They have become an integral symbol in Japan.
Cherry blossoms are known as sakura in Japan. They have been the focus of both art and poetry for centuries. These cheery blossoms have been a part of Japan since time immemorial. The first written mention of the cherry blossoms was in the year 712. These blossoms were even a part of the samurai tradition. They were said to "represent the fleeting nature of the samurai's life." The dark centers symbolized drops of blood. The meaning behind it was that the blossoms stood for the life of the samurai, and that like the cherry blossom, life was beautiful, no matter how short it is. This eventually symbolized any human life.
The cherry blossom also has deep connections to Buddhism, which is a common religion in Japan. The nobility of Japan began a viewing of these beautiful blossoms every year, following the practice of the Chinese during the Nara period (around the 7th century). Gradually the other classes also joined in, enjoying the brief show. This was mentioned in the Chronicles of Japan in the 3rd century. Eventually this became the hanami, or "cherry blossom viewing." Today crowds of people turn out to enjoy the cherry blossoms. With over 300 varieties of cherry trees to view, the entire country is quite a sight.
The practice of the hanami party can be traced to the Heian Era. What began as offerings of food to the trees themselves became a public picnic.
Today the meteorologists in Japan track the blossoming of the trees from the earliest flowers in Okinawa in February through Tokyo near the end of March all the way through the late flowering in northern Hokkaido. The whole population follows the progress with great eagerness. As the harbinger of spring, the blossoming awakens everyone to the warmer days and more relaxed attitudes of the seasonal change. This cherry blossom front, or sakura zensen, is included on the nightly news right after the weather forecast. Even the textbooks in the schools mark the cherry blossom front the same way it covers other weather related data.
Cherry blossom time is the most popular time for tourists to visit Japan. Besides the residents of Japan turning out to see the annual show, all the tourists want to take part as well. If you want to visit and see the blossoms yet skip the worst of the crowds, you may want to try visiting earlier and seeing the blooms in Okinawa or later and catching them in Hokkaido. It will still be crowded, but nowhere near what it would be around Tokyo in March or April. The sight of all those cherry blossoms in bloom is a sight not to be missed. It is the quintessential Japanese experience.