Cherry Blossom Season in Japan
A period of celebration, cherry blossom season in Japan is known as Hanami and sees locals and visitors alike revel in the beautiful blossoms.
The pretty blossoms of the Sakura (cherry trees) are important features of Japanese life and culture. When the flowers bloom, they are honoured with picnics, parties and special events that take place both day and night.
Why are the blossoms celebrated, when do they bloom and where can you see them?
What is the history and significance of Hanami?
Hugely significant in Japanese culture, the Sakura have been celebrated for centuries. Blossom viewing is thought to have started in the Nara period of the country’s history between 710 AD and 794 AD.
In times past, farmers would use the blooming of the flowers to help them decide the perfect moment to plant their crops.
Eventually, imperial families and their courtiers began holding gatherings in spring to celebrate the blossoms and this led to such celebrations becoming fashionable. Originally the preserve of the nobility, the celebrations were absorbed into popular culture.
For the Japanese, cherry blossoms are symbolic of the beauty and transient nature of life. They reflect the Buddhist concept of mono no aware which translates as “the pathos of things”. The flowers have also come to represent hope and new life and so they are certainly to be celebrated.
Cherry blossom imagery is prominent throughout Japanese culture. It can be seen everywhere from traditional folding screens to contemporary consumer goods and from ancient art to anime.
What are cherry blossoms?
Cherry blossoms are the flowers of trees from the genus Prunus. The trees are found throughout the world and are common in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere including Japan, China, Korea and areas of northern Europe.
More than 600 varieties of cherry blossom trees are found in Japan. Many of these kinds of cherry trees are hybrid cultivars. All cherry blossoms are beautiful, but they vary in their size, shape, colour and the number of petals on their flowers. Indeed, the flowers are named for the number of petals they feature. Flowers with five petals or less are known as hitoe. Those with five to ten petals are called hanyae. If the flowers feature more than 10 petals, they are called yae.
The trees are also differentiated in terms of the number of petals, the colour of the petals, the shape of the tree, the colour of the leaves, and whether the leaves arrive at the same time as the blossoms or after the blooming period. For instance, trees with blossoms boasting more than five petals are called yaezakura. Weeping cherry trees with drooping branches are called shidarezakura.
Cherry blossom viewing spots
Sakura trees can survive for centuries. It is thought that the oldest Sakura tree in Japan is the Jindai Zakura at the Jissou Temple in Yamanashi Prefecture Japan. This tree is 2,000 years old and boasts a root circumference of over 13 metres.
While the Sakura trees live for centuries, they flower for just a few days before the blooms fade and fall. Hence the blossoms are symbolic of the transient nature of life and its fragility. Trees typically bloom for around 14 days, but some are in flower for as little as two days.
The most common species of cherry blossom in Japan is the Somei-yoshino, a hybrid of two other species. It is recognisable for its almost entirely white petals that are tinged with light pink. The Somei-yoshino is often to be seen alongside rivers or castle moats. The trees can be planted to form tunnels of pale blooms that are reflected on the water. While Japanese cherry blossoms are usually white or shades of pink, the Ukon variety of ornamental cherry tree is notable for its pale yellow blossoms.
Found principally in the Kawazu region on the southern portion of the Izu Peninsula, the Kawazu-zakura tree boasts pink blossoms that bloom early. The Kawazu-zakura Cherry Blossoms Festival attracts around one million people each year.
When do the Sakura bloom?
Cherry blossom season in Japan is generally associated with late March and Early April. However, the time that the trees bloom is dictated by the variety of tree and the local climate. Japan measures 3,800 km from north to south. Spring arrives much earlier in the south than in the mountainous north and so the blooming season across the country can extend from January to early May.
In subtropical Okinawa to the south, cherry blossoms begin to bloom with the warmer weather as early as mid-January and can be viewed in early February. Around the southern cities of Kagoshima and Kumamoto, the blossoms may appear in mid-March while in Tokyo, flowering tends to occur at the end of March and peaks in the first week of April. But in the Northern cities of Sapporo and Hakodate, flowering usually begins in the first week of May.
At some point in the future, Japan could be celebrating Hanami twice each year. Botanists at Kyoto University have discovered a way to genetically modify Sakura trees so that they blossom in both spring and autumn.
With cherry blossoms being something of a national obsession, forecasts for flowering times are issued. The forecasts for Tokyo’s blooms can appear as early as the second week of January.
Climate change is impacting the cherry blossom season which has been progressively falling earlier in the year. 2021 saw the earliest peak in flowering since records began over 1,200 years ago.
What happens during Hanami?
The admiration of cherry blossoms is a national pastime in Japan. Across the country, friends, colleagues and families gather for picnics and parties in both well-known public parks and secret locations. Yoyogi Park in Tokyo is a hugely popular place to celebrate as it features a large concentration of trees. Japanese people arrive early at popular cherry blossom spots to reserve the best places to picnic beneath the blossoms.
When the flowers are in bloom, they inspire feelings of optimism, and their scents fill the air. People stand transfixed at the sight of the trees and the blossoms become an important topic of conversation. Cherry blossom viewers photograph the blooms and diverse products adorned with cherry blossom imagery fill the local shops. Sakura-flavoured sweets and drinks feature on menus and baby girls may be named Sakurako meaning “child of cherry blossom”.
Cherry blossom festivals
Many towns and cities throughout the nation hold flower blossom festivals and illuminate the trees at night with coloured lanterns. Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival in Aomori is particularly notable and attracts over 2 million visitors each year during the peak bloom periods.
Below is a link to this years forecast map :
The language of Hanami
Hanami is such a special time that the Japanese have specific words not only for the types of blooms and trees but also for their stages of development. Here are some of the commonly used words:
Tsubomi — Flowers that have started budding but have not yet bloomed.
Mankai — cherry blossom trees that are almost there but not yet in full bloom.
Migoro — the time when all the flowers of the trees are in full bloom.
Hanagasumi — means “flower haze” and refers to the beauty of a plethora of blossoms.
Sakura-Fubuki — translates as “cherry blossom snowstorm” and refers to petals falling in the breeze.
Hana-no-ami — means “flower rain” and describes the sight of rain falling onto the cherry blossoms.
Mikkaminumanosakura — this is the word used to describe the brief period of time during which the cherry blossoms go from being in full bloom to being scattered over the floor.
A great time to visit Japan
A celebration of natural beauty and renewal, Hanami honours a period of transformation. There are no fixed dates on the calendar for Hanami. The various festivals around Japan take place when nature dictates that they can begin. Spectacular but short-lived, the stunning array of flowers in full bloom is something to savour. The Sakura trees deliver a fiesta of pink, white and yellow petals that dazzle fleetingly before fluttering to the ground.
If you are considering visiting Japan, spring is an excellent time to experience the country. It is worth doing your research so that you can time your arrival to coincide with blossoming of the trees in the region you are visiting. But nature may have something to say about whether your trip turns out to be perfectly timed.