From the end of March until early May, sakura, or Japanese cherry blossom, bloom across Japan, their delicate flowers turning the entire nation a shade of frosted pink.
The sakura is widely recognised as Japan’s national flower. It is deeply symbolic, embodying the country’s cultural and philosophical beliefs: the blossoms represent the transient nature of life, and their existence, sometimes as short-lived as a week, is often associated with mortality, while their first bloom signifies, quite literally, new beginnings, as the first day of April is also the first day of the financial and academic year.
The initial blossoms usually appear in subtropical Okinawa, the country’s southernmost prefecture, as early as January, before emerging on the central islands (including Tokyo and Kyoto) in late March and early April, progressing further north to Hokkaido in May.
Hanami, literally meaning “flower viewing”, is synonymous with the sakura season. Originating thousands of years ago, the practice is believed to have begun in the Nara Period, when people would admire the plum, or ume, blossoms. However, the term hanami is now almost exclusively associated with cherry blossom.
In the Heian Period (794-1185), Emperor Saga and other members of the Imperial Court would host feasts under the blooming branches of the cherry blossom trees. These famed celebrations made their way down through the samurai to the common people, until the hanami parties were popular across all classes of Japanese society.
The cherry blossom inspired poets and academics, who would be fascinated by their fleeting ephemeral beauty, and as such, many of the haiku are written about this seasonal spectacle.
Today, the people of Japan, assisted by the Japanese Meteorological Agency, track the sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, as it advances northwards with the approach of warmer weather. These forecasts are closely watched by everybody, who, once cherry blossom season is announced, turn out in their droves to host hanami parties. In some cases, companies organise picnics prior, and send junior staff to rope off areas in popular parks to ensure their space under the blossoming boughs.
The day of opening is defined as the point at which at least five to six flowers have opened on sample trees, while the official day that marks the start of the season is determined when 80% of the flowers have blossomed.
Such is the high esteem that sakura is held in that cherry blossom trees have often been given as gifts to countries. In 1912, Japan gave more than 3,000 cherry blossom trees to the United States as a gift to honour the relationship between the two countries; the trees, located in Washington D.C., are celebrated with their own annual Cherry Blossom Festival. In 1959, 2,000 Somei-Yoshino cherry trees – the earliest species to bloom and much loved by the Japanese for their fluffy white flowers – were given to Toronto, and now bloom every year in High Park.