Sakura, or Cherry Blossoms, have a big part in Japanese culture. The flowers are arguably the symbol of the country, and have a deep connection to the people of the land of the rising sun. Often associated with the impermanence of life, death and new beginnings, the flowers are also prevalent in Japanese literature and poetry, and have been used as a metaphor for the life of a warrior samurai or a fallen soldier. Because of the short time that the flowers are in bloom, the connection can be made that our time here too, is always fleeting.
Sakura is in bloom in early spring all across Japan. It is one of the most popular times to visit the country, and there is only a small 1-2 week window to see them. The Japanese keep a close watch on the weather leading up to sakura season, with very precise predictions for the bloom time in each area of the country, and the information is broadcasted on the meteorological networks for the nation. The southern islands of Okinawa are the first to bloom, and they do so as early as February, and then moving up northwards towards Hokkaido, which has the latest bloom, occurring sometime around May.
The Sakura season calls for ‘Hanami’, or flower viewing parties. Groups of people gather under the trees to have a picnic and drink sake and beer and enjoy the beauty that surrounds them. Leading up to the Sakura season, many store fronts go “Sakura-crazy” and you can find sakura themed everything and anything under the sun. The flowers also influence the seasonal food, as there are many Sakura flavoured foods and confectionary which are made during that time.
Sakura-mochi is one example. It is a rice cake which is sweet and pink in colour and has a red bean paste centre, and wrapped in a pickled Sakura leaf. Contrary to its name, cherry blossom trees do not in fact produce cherries.
Apart from those two magnificent weeks in bloom, the trees are pretty plain-looking year round. Nevertheless, Sakura is something to be marvelled at, as it creates a sea of pink petals and brings with it the warm and comfortable spring weather.
Living in Kyoto for two years, I had the opportunity to experience the cherry blossom season twice. Unfortunately, Sakura season is also tourist season, and many of the temples and shrines boasting the most beautiful sakura are often extremely crowded and not so enjoyable when people are crawling over top of each other, especially when you are trying to take a beautiful picture. Alternatively, I suggest going elsewhere, as there are sakura trees planted all around the city, and there are many amazing spots to be completely surrounded by the pink flowers and truly enjoy the experience.
My favourite spots to see sakura in and around the Kyoto region are many of the temples such as Daikakuji, Yasaka-jinja, Kiyomizudera, Hirano-jinja, and on the Philosopher’s Path up to Ginkakuji. However, there are trees spread out all along the river in Arashiyama, and also Kamogawa, closer to the city. Kiyamachi-sanjo is also a great place to sit and chill under the sea of pink. Some temples like Kiyomizdera offer light up sakura during the season and can be visited after dark to get that brilliant night shot of the flowers.
I definitely recommend the sakura season to anyone and everyone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand. The fleeting beauty of the flowers and the strong metaphors behind them make you think about life itself, and the impermanence of it all. We only have a limited amount of time on this earth. We should cherish it, savour it, and live it out gracefully, as a sakura petal.