Spring is the season for sakura, or cherry blossom, in Japan. There are dozens of different varieties of cherry trees in Japan.
In ancient Japan, cherry blossom was used to forecast how the coming year's crops would do, and together with peach blossom, cherry blossom plays an important part in the traditional ceremonies.
Cherries are part of the rose family. Normally all of the colorful blossoms are blown away within a week to 10 days. During this short time the land is covered with the color and scent of the fragile cherry blossom. The intense beauty and short time-span have conferred upon the cherry blossom a spiritual and philosophical meaning relating to beauty and the fragility of human life.
In sakura, the people of Japan celebrate with a cherry blossom party - hanami.
In ancient Japan, hanami was reserved for members of the imperial family. Common people were not permitted to celebrate. Today everyone takes part and hanami viewing is a great excuse to party.
The Japanese gather their friends and picnic under a canopy of cherry blossom, enjoying the brief burst of beauty and springtime. Most people have their hanami over lunch but some wait until the evening when lanterns are lit among the cherry trees and the parties go on for hours into the night. Fast food stalls provide barbecued chicken called yakitori and yakisoba and fried noodles.
Where to hanami
There are quite a few places in Japan that are famous only for their cherry trees. People flock to these towns and cities when the sakura are in bloom.
The best places to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo are Ueno Park, with more than 1,000 trees, and Sumida Park with hundreds of cherry trees. Osaka Castle Park, covering 60,000 square meters, is also a popular destination. In Kyoto the Ninnaji Temple and Hirano Jinja Shrine are popular places to gather for hanami. The Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park in downtown Kyoto are also well-known areas for enjoying the cherry blossoms.
Preparing for a hanami party involves keeping an eye on the weather. Once the blossoms appear, they are often gone within days. The sakura zensen, the cherry blossom front, is watched to calculate the exact timing for hanami cherry blossom viewing parties.
In Japan, weather stations provide updates and newspapers publish maps so everyone will know when the sakura zensen will arrive in their area.
Rain, wind and temperatures can have a strong effect on the process of the blossoming, delaying or shortening it considerably.
(Shanghai Daily April 21, 2008)