Late March/early April is the time that the famed cherry blossoms open in Tokyo. As Japan is such a long thin archipelago, equivalent to the distance from Morocco to Norway, the cherries begin to bloom in February in Okinawa, have reached Tokyo in late March, and finally bloom in Hokkaido in early May.
There are more than one hundred varieties of cherry in Japan. Flower viewing was popular in the Nara period (Japan’s first permanent capital before the move to Kyoto). In those days the plum tree, which blooms in February and March, was the favoured tree. By the early Kamakura period (1185-1333) cherry blossoms became more popular, and finally in the Edo Era sakura (its Japanese name) dominated in popularity.
Plum blossoms, with their delicate scent, are the first flowers to bloom in early spring. Magnolias tend to open in mid-March, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that the cherries will open about ten days after this.
Cherries have been widely appreciated in Japanese literature, poetry and art for many centuries. There are many poems and woodblock prints celebrating cherry blossom viewing (known as hanami). Because the blossoms only last one week, they are seen as a metaphor for the ephemeral beauty of youth, or of life. In literature they are associated with mono no aware - empathy toward things and an awareness of the impermanence of all life.
The most popular tress are Somei Yoshino (seen in most of these photos), Shidarezakura (the hanging or weeping cherry that blossoms a little later than the Somei Yoshino), and finally the Yamazakura (mountain sakura), the only one of the three that is not a cultivated tree. This one was the most popular in the Edo Era (1603 – 1868), and is often seen in the wild. They are rarely seen in Tokyo these days.
Many of the photos accompanying this text have been taken near the moat of the Imperial Palace, which is very popular place for viewing as so many trees can be seen together along either side of the Palace moats. The pink and white of the blossoms is highlighted against the steep grassy banks. Note the crowds, even at nightime.
The week when sakura bloom creates a noticeable change in people’s attitudes: it’s not just that the city suddenly looks beautiful (it doesn’t usually). The temperatures suddenly rise. The cold nights and mornings, often with bitter Siberian winds, are gone. As the cherry petals fall, it seems as if it is snowing, but the temperatures below them are comfortable.
Though cherry blossoms have long been associated with Japan, given the intense rivalry with Korea and China, it is perhaps unsurprising that South Korean media have claimed their country to be the place of origin of this tree. So too in China, as the executive chairman of the China Cherry Industry Association claimed the Middle Kingdom as the blossom’s true birthplace. Nonetheless, worldwide, the sakura blossom will always be associated with Japan.