If you’re visiting Japan in spring, chances are you’ll find yourself at some point standing in the middle of one of the many country paths lined up with beautiful cherry blossom trees. Without knowing, you’ll join a Japanese tradition dating back centuries, of an adored national symbol widely represented in culture, literature and more recently, modern consumerism.
The sakura season is widely celebrated in Japanese culture as a symbol for ‘the ephemeral beauty of living.’ The cherry blossom is a perfect metaphor for this philosophy of life, due to its short bloom of only roughly ten days. The life cycle of the sakura tree is similar to that of humans, reaching their peak after about twenty years and dying at around the age of seventy. What better time to rejoice at the life’s changes than in spring, a transient season full of beauty, leading to months of warmth, sunshine and colour.
If someone wishes to know the essence of the Japanese spirit,
it is the fragrant cherry blossoms in the early morning.1
Historians believe that cherry trees have been seen as sacred by the ancient populations of Japan, who were attributing them with divine characteristics and using their bark in hunting ceremonies, asking the spirits for fertility and safety. The red colour was also believed to protect them against evil spirits.
As you visit the many temples of Japan, you will probably also notice that many places of worship are built in beautiful forests, often surrounded by trees such as pine, oak, ginkgo, or cherry blossoms. This is mainly due to the fact that all these trees are part of shinboku or considered ‘divine trees.’ A popular legend in the Chronicles of Japan tells the story of Empress Saimei. She commissioned the deforestation of the Shrine of Asakura in order to build her palace. This action greatly angered the Gods, which in turn, demolished the building as punishment.
The symbol of the ephemeral life holds a certain existentialist quality to it, yet at the same time, it is grounded in a spirit of optimism and hope. Although the blossoms have a short lifespan, you can always count on them to reappear year after year, their bloom signifying a renewal of the human condition, another chance at a jovial life. At the same time, with each year, just as the trees age, so do we, the flower’s state of decay only a reminder of our own mortality.
each spring the blossoms
reach their brilliance once again
but seeing them so
we are reminded that to
watch them fall is our lot.2
For the modern Japanese, the sakura season is one of celebration and friendship. It is just as much about embracing the warmth of spring, as it is about connecting with your friends and family. Hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) parties are a common way to celebrate, where locals meet under cherry blossom trees to drink sake and eat delicious bento lunches! The tradition dates back to the Heian period (794-1185) where nobility would observe the condition of the cherry trees as a prediction for the quality of the harvest for the coming year. If the harvest looked plentiful, they would celebrate with drinks and food under the trees!
The season is marked by a consumerist extravaganza, where everything from big brand names to local venues launch new pink-branded products to celebrate the cherry blossoms. McDonald’s has a sakura mochi McFlurry and Starbucks launches an entire collection just to mark the season every year! In stores, everything from detergent to KitKat is sakura branded. I encourage you to walk around and see what you may find. It’s quite a fascinating time when everyone comes together in a spirit of celebration – it almost feels like Christmas, minus the evergreens and with a touch – or shall I say explosion – of pink colours all around!
Cherry blossom flavoured dorayaki
Fundamentally, the cherry blossom represents a celebration of life, without ignoring its complexities and limitations. It is a tree that has been passed across generations as a symbol of something greater that not only celebrates and unites us, but also reminds us of our transience. The cherry blossom story tells us that each one of life’s moments must not only be examined, but lived.
Each moment, transitory as an emotion; happiness and sadness only momentary, fleeting through the present like a warm rush of air. To feel it, is to be alive; to enjoy it, is to be a human at peace in the moment.
© Cover Photo by Ed Saleh. Instagram @ ed.saleh | Quotes – 1. Japanese scholar and cherry-blossom lover, Notoori Norinage | 2. Rodd & Henkenius. Kokinsh: A Collection of Poems Ancient and Modern
© Research – 1. Lee, Khoon Choy. Japan: Between Myth and Reality | 2. Atsushi, Awazuhara. Perceptions of Ambiguous Reality – Life, Death and Beauty in Sakura | 3. Chikako, Fukushima. An essay on the goddess Konohana no sakuya-bime | 4. Atsushi, Awazuhara | 5. The Japan Forum Newsletter No. 16, March 2000