Everything you need to know about cherry blossom in Japan
They are swooned over, obsessed over and painstakingly painted. They are cited as a symbol of the transient nature of life. And they are sprinkled on lattes in coffee shops. It is impossible to think of springtime in Japan without an iconic image of a sea of cherry trees awash with perfect pink blooms instantly coming to mind.
From as early as the eighth century, elite imperial courtiers paused to appreciate the delicate pink cherry blossoms known as sakura before indulging in picnics and poetry sessions beneath the blooms. Fast-forward more than a millennium and the flowers that launched a thousand haiku are no less revered in modern-day Japan.
Today, as spring approaches, the entire nation turns a shade of pink. Months before they arrive, retailers switch into sakura mode – cue supermarkets filled with plastic cherry blossom flowers and cherry blossom-flavoured innovations in convenience stores (this year’s highlights so far include cherry-blossom-and-butter crisps and cherry blossom Pepsi). The countdown excitement is heightened further by the televised Cherry Blossom Forecast which offers a petal-by-petal analysis of the advance of the blooms – known as the cherry blossom front – as they sweep from the south to the north of the archipelago.
When the blooms actually arrive (as confirmed by teams of meticulous cherry blossom officials), it is time to indulge in one of the nation’s all-time favourite pastimes – hanami, which literally translates as “looking as flowers” and refers to flower appreciation picnics under the blooms.
Why so popular?
The nation’s deep-rooted attachment to cherry blossoms goes far beyond buying a pink fizzy drink at 7-Eleven. The flowers are deeply symbolic: their short-lived existence taps into a long-held appreciation of the beauty of the fleeting nature of life, as echoed across the nation’s cultural heritage, from tea ceremonies to wabi sabi ceramics. The blossoms also, quite literally, symbolise new beginnings, with 1 April being the first day of both the financial and academic year in Japan. In a nutshell? The cherry blossoms are not just pretty pink flowers: they are the floral embodiment of Japan’s most deep-rooted cultural and philosophical beliefs.
The Sakura Front
The nation prides itself on its devotion to the important task of forecasting the exact arrival of the first cherry blossoms. Since 1951, teams of meteorologists have been dispatched to monitor the advance of the cherry blossom front – sakura zensen in Japanese – as they burst into bloom across the country. Today, it is a hi-tech affair, with forecasts and scientists undertaking complicated mathematical equations filling television screens in the build-up to their appearance.
Officials traditionally observe the pale pink blooms of the yoshino cherry tree – Japan’s most common type – with the season declared open when at least five or six flowers have opened on a sample tree in any given area. The flowers only bloom for around a week before the so-called “sakura snow” effect starts and they float sadly off the trees.