Sakura: an ode to Japan's timeless pink flowers

A national symbol recognized far and wide, cherry blossoms or sakura are almost synonymous with Japan's image. On travel pamphlets and virtually any media related to Japan, it is always there. From a foreigner's perspective, it appears sakura is merely a plant iconic of Spring and the country. It is true that the flower flourishes when the weather becomes warm, indicating the long-awaited end of winter, but its significance goes deeper. Japan's culture itself revolves around the flower as it blooms, highlighting its social, spiritual, and aesthetic values. 

The delicate pink flower has been appreciated since ancient times, celebrated through sakura-watching parties called hanami (hana meaning flower and mi to look). Hanami dates back to the Heian period (794-1185), enjoyed as an elegant custom among the well-educated aristocracy only and did not involve crowds eating and drinking under cherry trees. Today the event is partaken by everyone and involves a variety of activities; mostly feasting, drinking and making merriment. Strangers gather by the multitudes atop blue plastic sheets; a familar springtime sight in contemporary Japan. In such ways, the flowers unite people from different backgrounds and breathe a fresh wind of gaiety to a new start. It is worth mentioning that the blooming period coincides with the beginning of schools and businesses, as new students and laborers alike enter a new path. Thus, the flower is often viewed as a symbol of new beginnings. 

Image: the river at Naka-itabashi, Tokyo becomes fringed with pinks and whites; an ideal place for photography and a walk (by author)

Its color plays a vital role in shaping the environment and those who reside within it.  As the bitter cold of winter recedes, various plants add color and vigor to the barren landscape. But the one that arguably takes center stage is the beloved sakura; first a little blush here and there, then to a complete explosion of pink that brings comfort to many eyes - therefore, it becomes a common sight to see pink puffs emerging from the city, Although the flowers are generally pale pink, the color of which is frequently used in depicting the plant through art, it can come in a broad palette of shades. Besides a range of light and dark pinks, the blossoms can sometimes even be a light green. The most numerous and simultaneously the color of the season, is the someiyoshino variety, which approximately accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all sakura trees in Japan. Differing in color, form and time of blooming, multiple types of sakura can be witnessed throughout the country. For someone weary of winter's chill and drab atmosphere, the cotton candy-like fluff is a blessing to the senses. 

On a similar note, the mood of the surroundings change in tune - everyday paths become boulevards of pink that invite people of all ages, many of whom were confined indoors by the preceding cold. Even a simple street leading up to the supermarket incites anticipation as eye-catching pastel tones light up the scene. Traditional paper lanterns called chōchin are hung up and glow at night, further illuminating the rosy picture. Popular sites such as the Kanda River in Tokyo become hotspots for tourists and photographers. With an increase in tourism and attention garnered from social media, the sakura is further gaining attention from domestic and foreign audiences. As a result, crowds have also become a regular sight at areas where the flowers are concentrated.

Image: Ueno, Tokyo packed with visitors from Japan and abroad signifies the growing popularity of Japan's cherry blossoms

In response to the blossoms and people, stores take on a pink look. It is not surprising to find decorations hung up on markets and signs; all products essntially turn pink. Food, in particular, is apparent of the flower's influence. Wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets often shaped into plants, play a vital role during this season. Sakura-mochi and dōmyōji are perhaps the two most popular wagashi representative of the period. Both dispay a gentle pink similar to that of the flowers with one, the dōmyōji, wrapped in a salted cherry blossom leaf. A famous, long-standing wagashi company, Toraya is notable for this sweet; much of the display space at this time of year devoted to sakura-mochi and other fresh confections with cherry motifs. Traditional foods are not the only ones that bear the sakura pink. Ice cream, cakes, puddings, snacks and so forth also look and taste like the flowers. Such items are surprisingly offered by convenience stores, known as konbini (abbreviation in Japanese). From classic wagashi parlors to daily convenience stores, delectable sakura-themed goods are easily accessible to anyone. In Japan, the flowers are not only enjoyed by sight but through all senses. 

Image: two iconic wagashi - the sakura-mochi and dōmyōji offer a chance to feel Spring through sight, smell, and taste

Image: convenience stores (konbini) offer a wide and pleasant array of sakura-themed sweets; cakes, puddings, jellies, etc.

Though sakura has now more or less become a plain sight, especially to local Japanese, its significance is not to be forgotten nor simplified to a mere plant of Spring. Like it has been mentioned earlier regarding hanami and their symolism of rebirth, the flower holds spiritual weight for bringing people together. Just as it blooms when new lives in school and careers begin, it imparts an encouraging, hopeful note. Despite its ancient history and vast influence on the country's culture, they last for a very brief time: after their beauty peaks around two weeks, the blossoms start to fall. Like teardrops, its petals scatter like snow after full bloom or rain. But it is this fleeting nature that makes them special; to flourish and bring joy to those who walk under its branches. It can be compared to life's brevity in the sense that many great things inevitably come to an end. Even after the flowers end, its petals still continue to beautify the place by creating a carpet of gentle pink. When one has the opportunity to admire sakura, its beauty is to be appreciated in many aspects.