The Japanese love sakura more than any other flower. It has been depicted in paintings, lauded in poems, and glorified as the national flower. The sakura mark the 100 yen coin. It is a popular girl’s name, Sakura have even been made into sweets. The blooming of the cherry tree is both a happy and melancholic event. As the harbingers of spring, it represents renewal, harmony, growth, and beauty. However, their rapid disappearance carries symbols of death, impermanence, and letting go. This duality is a common theme in the Japanese religion*, especially the Buddhist elements.
One of the positive associations with the sakura is the tradition of hanami, or flower viewing. “Flower viewing” is a literal translation, although there is no real, concise English equivalent that communicates the same concept. Hanami is hanami. It is the tradition of going out with family or friends to sit under the blooming cherry trees to watch and appreciate their beauty. It is a chance to feel a sense of oneness with nature. It is also a party, often including lots of drinking, picnic food, and rowdy behavior.
The hanami has a long history in Japan. Although records of the gatherings are found in Japan’s first historical texts, such as the Nihon Shoki, dating them as far back as the 3rd century, the tradition is said to have really begun in the Nara Period (710-794), with its full form and sakura-only focus beginning in the Heian Period (794-1185). Like many beloved Japanese traditions, it began as an activity for the wealthy and high class, and eventually found its way into the hearts of the common folk. It is so firmly rooted in the culture that it is enjoyed by nearly everyone in the nation, and news stations even have daily reports in the spring to show exactly where the sakura are beginning to bloom. Schools take their students on hanami outings, families crowd the parks with their children, eating obento (packed lunches) beneath the shade, and friends gather together to drink and enjoy the brief time of the cherry tree in full bloom. The tradition of hanami communicates the same sentiments of the sakura, perhaps even more so. It especially emphasizes the idea of “ichi go, ichi e,” which means “One moment, one encounter.” English speakers may be more familiar with the equivalent of “carpe diem,” “seize the day,” or “live in the moment.” The sakura are a brief beauty, and the hanami is the best way to enjoy them while they last. (http://thinkjapanblog.com/sakura-hanami-flower-viewing.html)
In a culture where many people are disregarding their heritage and old traditions, hanami and the love of sakura is one example of a tradition that continues to remain strong even in the face of constant technological development, busy work schedules, and endless distractions. Even the most overloaded salary man, the busiest housewife, and the most absorbed gaming or texting teen gather together to enjoy an afternoon of hanami. Hanami and sakura are the essence of Japan and the Japanese people.
For someone from dry Colorado, the sheer number of cherry trees and the culture surrounding them was completely astounding. I spent a lot of time trying to take as many pictures and videos of the blooms as I could, always aware of their ephemeral nature. I watched the gradual invasion of green with apprehension, despairing at the scattering dead but still beautiful petals on the ground.
Below are some of the best pictures of sakura I (or my boyfriend) took while in Japan.
The banner at the top of my blog is another picture I took. I hope you enjoy all these beautiful pink blossoms!
*Many people distinguish between Shinto and Buddhism as Japan’s major religions; however they have become so intricately linked over the centuries that they are almost a single, uniquely Japanese religion.