Even before you heard about any other aspects of Japan, I bet you heard about the Japanese sakura first. It’s the most iconic image of the country, after all.
There is so much buzz surrounding it, you’d think it’s significant in the Japanese culture — you’re right. The flower and everything that comes with it takes up a huge part of the tradition that is extremely visible to this very day. When it’s almost “sakura season” — a phrase that you often hear in Japan — every local has some sort of preparation to welcome the blooming of these pale pink blossoms. Foreigners that come to Japan have adopted similar practices during the sakura season; whether or not it’s to immerse themselves in the culture or because it became such a popular activity, it doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that sakura is a thing of the past, present and future of Japan. Let’s delve into everything you need to know about sakura — including the significance and practices that come along with it.
What is sakura?
First and foremost, what exactly is sakura? The word “sakura” is the Japanese name for a specific type of flower that grows on cherry blossom trees. Some might argue that it’s not any type of cherry blossom; it’s only the prunus serrulata, which is the Japanese cherry that is native to Japan as well as Korea and China. In the eyes of the Japanese, these cherry blossoms are the most beautiful Japanese flowers.
Unlike the cherry trees, cherry blossom trees don’t produce fruit but instead bloom beautiful flowers. Blooming only once a year, there are quite a few types of Japanese cherry blossom trees spread all across the country. One particular variety that’s the most popular is the Somei Yoshino, a type of natural hybrid that produces pale pink flowers.
Even though cherry blossoms can be found all around the world, it’s extremely prominent in Japan. Sakura became such an iconic image for the country that some people even call it Japan’s informal national flower.
What does sakura symbolize in Japan?
The blossoming of these delicate and radiant flowers doesn’t just symbolize the beginning of spring; there are quite a few other significances to the sakura. In fact, sakura has a rich history and identity in Japanese culture.
Initially, sakura was used to predict the year’s harvest. Farmers kept an eye out for the blooming of sakura to indicate to them the ideal time to plant their crops. Throughout time, it has become the representation of the Wabi-sabi philosophy — a Japanese aesthetics that centers itself on the acceptance of imperfection and temporariness while acknowledging the beauty in them — as well as Shinto ideals of impermanence and renewal.
The blooming of the sakura symbolizes human mortality to many Japanese people; just like the flower, it is beautiful and brilliant during its strongest bloom but withers when the time comes, reflecting its fragility. There’s a Buddhist notion of “mono no aware” which has a loose meaning of bringing awareness to the impermanence of things which leads to the heightening awareness of their beauty — such notion is directed to the fragile sakura blooms. This reminds us of how short and precious life is.
Other countries have the start of their school year in autumn, but the Japanese school year begins in April — during the cherry blossom season. That’s because sakura is a symbol of good luck and hope.
Not only is it a cultural significance in Japan, but sakura is also a huge influence in the economy as well. Because of its deep roots in Japanese tradition, shops of various kinds fill their shelves with sakura-themed products — from food and drinks to wares and clothing.
A lot of Japanese art that features sakura in them carries the various symbolisms of the flower. This huge significance of sakura in Japan also brings about countless activities, events, and festivals that centers around the blooming of these cherry blossoms.
The “Hanami” Culture
Believe it or not, “hanami” — which refers to the activity of having a picnic underneath the cherry blossom trees — also has a long history behind it. This blossom viewing activity initially started way back in the Nara period, around 710-794. It only became a huge festivity when Emperor Saga and the Imperial Court started throwing picnics and parties especially for flower-viewing in the Heian period, around 794-1185.
The Japanese people picked up this activity rather eagerly, and as the years go by, it became a Japanese tradition where every local celebrates every year. Regardless of social status and hierarchy — from samurais to commoners — all of the people of Japan would go out and celebrate the blooms of these pale pink flowers.
This hanami culture is extremely present to this very day. And that’s not even the best part — even people of other cultures and traditions practice this social activity each spring in Japan. While it started as a local Japanese cultural event to observe the symbolic sakura during their short but beautiful blooming period, it is now a not-to-be-missed tradition of spring in The Land of the Rising Sun — regardless of race, religion, and background. You’ll see groups of Japanese as well as foreigners under the blooming sakura trees with picnic mats and cans of alcoholic beverages, but what’s even more amazing is that in recent years, these groups start to intermingle and socialize with each other! Who would’ve thought that pale pink blossoms would bring people together when any other occasion wouldn’t be able to?
Where to hanami?
Of course, the question is then: where is the best place to take part in hanami? The short and simple answer is, anywhere in Japan! The country is flooded with cherry blossom trees, so many that you’ll come across at least a few on just your walk from your accommodation to the station.
But if you’re looking for the ultimate hanami experience, there are a few go-to locations for the all-out hanami culture.
Tokyo gets one of the first few blooms in all of Japan, so travellers tend to stop by the capital city when seeking out cherry blossoms. For first-timers of hanami in Tokyo, get the full atmosphere at Yoyogi Park — it’s arguably the best spot to drink till you’re drunk from midday while bathing in the pinks of the sakura. It’s a huge park in the center of the city — you’ll be able to go anywhere from here; maybe to a bar to continue your drinking adventures?
Ueno Park is another one that I highly recommend; it can get quite crowded and overpacked on the weekends, so the best time on weekdays to have a bit of breathing room.
The next biggest city in Japan is Osaka, which also has its fair share of awesome hanami locations. Kill two birds with one stone by heading over to the Osaka Castle Park — not only will you get your hanami game on, but you’ll also be able to sightsee and visit the famous Osaka Castle. Can a hanami experience get any better than that?
Coming from the biggest sakura enthusiast ever, trust me that you’re better off searching for a local park nearby for the most authentic hanami — my favourite spot in all of Japan is a small river just by my house, with walking paths next to the stream and cherry blossom trees lining the whole stretch.
When do sakura bloom?
The “sakura season” — which refers to when the sakura is in bloom and the sign of the start of spring — can be quite random. Regardless, it is such an anticipated season each year that there are tons of cherry blossom forecasts months before the expected bloom! This tracking of the blooming progression of the cherry trees is called the “sakura zensen” which translates to the cherry blossom front.
The sakura is only in full bloom for about a week or so — adding to their magnificence and exclusivity. It doesn’t all bloom at once, though. The magical bloomings of these pink flowers are spread across a few months, from March to early May, throughout the diverse landscape of the country’s main islands. The Hawaii of Japan, Okinawa, is the first part of Japan to see the blooms of sakura in January, though. Then comes Tokyo, the capital city, that will be graced by the sakura blooms. The cherry blossom trees in northern Japan, Hokkaido, are the last ones to bloom — they’re expected to be in full bloom in May.
Because it’s so spread out across a few months, travelers wouldn’t have to worry so much about catching the perfect flight for the ideal week of sakura blooming — whichever time you are in Japan, as long as it’s within the months of March to May, you’re bound to see some pink blooms on your trip!
Sakura isn’t just beautiful pale pink flowers that take over the landscape of Japan in the months of spring — they have quite a background and significance in the Japanese culture. From being the symbol of life to a celebration that brings people together, there is no doubt that these cherry blossoms are here to stay and continue to dominate the spring season of the Land of the Rising Sun — and they’re more than welcome to; we all love a full, blossoming sakura spring!