Firstly, cherry blossom trees were not originally native to Japan, but were rather brought to Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794). Most experts on this topic speculate that the cherry trees actually originated in the Himalayas. Even though Japan is famous for ‘sakura’, cherry blossom trees exist in many countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Secondly, there is not just one type of cherry blossom tree, but rather there are hundreds. In fact there are over six hundred kinds of cherry trees throughout the world (over two hundred in Japan alone), each with different shaped and colored petals. The period of time in spring in which they bloom can also vary as well.
The most common type of cherry tree in Japan is called the ‘Yoshino cherry’, and its petals are the pale pink variety. ‘Yamazakura’ is another popular variety, with a paler, whitish-pink flower. They are most often found in mountain areas and on hillsides. The flowers of the ‘Kawazuzakura’ are larger than most, and a bright pink color. Many of these can be seen along the Izu Peninsular.
Oh and one last thing to be aware of: many of the cherry trees that have been cultivated for their beautiful blossoms don’t actually produce any cherries. The type of cherry tree that produces edible fruit, while part of the same family, is a slightly different variety, has a leafier appearance and is smaller in size.
Mandy and I, like most Japanese people, enjoy the Japanese custom of ‘hanami’ – flower viewing. My wife and I enjoyed seeing spring flowers in Australia too, but Japanese people have turned this yearly event into an art form.
Company workers will select a fine day for example, and then convene a picnic under a tree in a nearby park that day. A couple of lowly ranked office workers will have the task of grabbing the spot early in the morning, placing blankets down for everyone to sit on, and then ‘minding’ the spot until everybody arrives at lunchtime so that nobody else can snatch it away. The rest of the afternoon is spent eating and drinking and singing special traditional songs to mark the occasion.
Government employees will sometimes do the same thing, but not so much public servants who are too busy in their jobs. Clusters of housewives, retired couples, romantic young couples and families will also participate in this event in parks and riversides all over Japan, wherever Cherry Blossom trees are in bloom.
Full bloom is a wonderful thing to see, as the bunches of cherry blossoms look so fluffy and almost bursting with beauty and pride, but the final stages of the cherry blossom are also impressive to observe. Cherry blossoms have a rather ephemeral existence, and only stay on the branches for a week or so. Because they are considered native to Japan by many Japanese, and have this brief life span, it is often said that they represent the Samurai whose service to their country was beautiful to see but often short-lived. Even some of the Japanese pilots of suicide missions in World War Two painted cherry blossoms on their planes, and one of their units was called Yamazakura – wild cherry blossom.
Therefore, seeing the petals of the cherry blossoms fall can have a rather ‘moving’ effect on many Japanese people, as they can be seen to reflect the fragility and fleeting transience of life. They’re also beautiful for another reason – they resemble pink snow when they fall en masse. At this time of the year, especially after a rainfall or strong winds, Mandy and I occasionally remark that “there may be a pink snowfall today”. It’s amazing to see all these soft pink petals falling down from the cherry trees and floating in the breeze.
Mandy and I live in a small, traditional village in the mountains above Matsusaka city, and are lucky enough to have our very own cherry blossom tree situated in our back yard. Last weekend we were sitting out under the tree, enjoying a cup of tea in the sunshine, when a warm, stiff breeze blew in. Suddenly we found ourselves in the midst of a pink flurry of cherry blossom petals. It was marvelous, and brought immediate smiles to our faces. It felt like Mother Nature herself was embracing us. For those who haven’t had the chance to enjoy viewing these magnificent trees, I hope that you get the opportunity to do so in the future. They really are a sight to see.
Cherry Blossom Picnic
Sitting under the cherry blossom tree,
Watching the petals fly, bright blue sky,
Barely a cloud that I can see, feeling free,
Must capture the moment, for soon it dies.
Cherry blossoms last only a week,
And serve to remind us that life is short,
We must follow the dreams that our hearts seek,
And avoid the problems with which life is fraught.
So I turn my back on dark cloudy skies,
And embrace the warmth of this bright sunshine,
Cherry blossoms have prepared their goodbyes,
But spring is here, and the outlook seems fine.
Cherry blossom petals fall from their trees,
So brief, they leave, and now they fly,
Floating, dancing in the warm spring breeze,
Their final goodbye a faint bird's cry.
Chris Ryall 2014