Chasing the cherry blossom in Japan
Carolyn Dwyer has been on the move around Japan chasing the fleeting petals of Japanese cherry.
The gentle pink of Cherry blossom creeps up the face of Japan like the blush of a shy Maiko (an apprentice geisha believe it or not). Ah yes, cherry blossom or sakura season, is upon us again. From the end of March to early May more than a million cherry-blossom-chasers travel to Japan from around the world to catch these flowers in bloom. During these precious weeks the nation is consumed with the centuries-old tradition of hanami or flower viewing.
Hanami is the Japanese tradition of enjoying the beauty of flowers. The Hanami usually refers to cherry blossoms, sometimes to plum blossoms – it’s a national obsession.
Who comes to the party? There are young families, businessmen in their suits, elegant old ladies in exquisite kimonos, teenagers in funky gear with rainbow-coloured hair, and of course, us tourists! Most hanami participants bring along large plastic sheets, to spread out beneath the trees. Many carry their own picnic baskets laden with bento sets, flasks of hot ocha (green tea) and plenty of alcohol. In fact, we observe many picnickers breaking out in song over carefully poured cups of sake.
Paper lanterns are hung in trees. Sakura was used to announce the rice-planting season and people also made offerings to the trees. The ancient Emperors used to have flower parties to thank their Gods and life.
When should I go? Fascinatingly, the cherry blossoms (or sakura zensen) come with the warmer temperatures of spring and moves from south to north. Therefore, the earliest trees to bloom – as early as January or February – are located at the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. The last blossoms are seen in the northern island of Hokkaido; in its capital Sapporo, they don’t start blooming before early May. For most of Japan though, and most importantly for those visiting Kyoto and Tokyo, the flowering season is from late March to late April.
When do you ever see flowers in the news? Well how about every night. The progress of the blossom is so anchored in tradition that there is even a ‘sakura forecast’ announced on the weather section of the news each night so that fans chasing the flower-viewing phenomenon can carefully plan everything: picnic (check), sake (check), ground rug (check), bento box (check)! Remember the blooming of each plant lasts only a week.
What cherries will we see? Cherry blossoms are the flowers of any cherry trees classified under the genus Prunus. Japan alone has over 200 types of sakura, from the pristine, nearly pure white someiyoshino to the rich pink of the heavily-petalled yaezakura like the Kansan cherries pictured above. The lightness and delicacy of the petals contrast against the sturdy black trunk and branches.
We are bewitched by the Yoshino cherry blossom planted over 400 years ago. Also known as Somei-Yoshino (Prunus x yedoensis) these are the typical five petal white blossom with the red centre and stamens.
Where to find the best cherry blossom?
Think Kyoto – a stoll along the canal (also known as Straight street) to the Heian Shrine the blossom reaches its peak and a delicate perfume permeates the air.
Don’t miss Heian Shrine, it prides itself on the display of ‘Benishida’ weeping cherries (Prunus subhirtella ‘pendula’) in a de peer shade of pink. We are becoming sakura connoisseurs.The shidarezakura, also known as the weeping cherry has graceful, falling branches resembling those of a weeping willow.
Strolling the Philosopher’s Walk near the Silver Pavilion in Kyoto is a sakura must-see-event, some of us wax lyrical and start to compose Haiku poetry.
Chasing cherries becomes an obsession so we head out to Arashiyama on the edge of the city on an unscheduled hunt for views of the wild Mountain cherries called ‘yamazakura’. We spot them like puffs of pink cloud on the hillsides that fold into the river valley as we shuffle along the Moon Watching Bridge in single file with half of the residents of Kyoto.
Weeping cherries hang like a veil over the wall to Roanji – the popular meditation stone garden, the cherries become part of the shakkei or ‘borrowed view’.
Further afield we travel across Honshu on the Russian side of Japan where it is colder and Sakura are at 60%. Fat white buds promise a splendid display and we spot a solitary pink cherry outside a Gasho house in Shirakawago Folk Village.
We reach Tokyo where the whole street beside our hotel is lined with deep pink Kansan cherries in full bloom.
Sakura is surely a feast for every sense. Beyond the beauty of cherry trees in full bloom or inhaling the light fragrance of the petals, you can even taste them! Both the flowers and leaves are edible. Traditionally the blossoms are pickled in umezu (plum vinegar) and salt. These are then used to make anpan, a sweet bun filled with red bean paste, and sakurayu (cherry blossom tea), made from infusing the pickled blossoms in hot water. And then there’s sakura ice cream – simply sublime!
Carolyn Dwyer is a historian and horticulturist who leads Ross Garden Tours. We have organised a garden tour to chase the cherry blossom of Japan every year for the last 35 years. Check out the itinerary here
Photos: Shutterstock and illmakeitmyself.net for the ice cream image.