Japan: The Land of Cherry Blossoms

Sakura: The New Symbol of Japan

A popular moniker for Japan is “the land of the rising sun” for the very reason that it is geographically closest to the east side where the sun first rises. The official Japanese word “Nippon”, which directly translates to “the land where the sun rises” has been around for more than a thousand years. In a way, the sun has become a symbol for traditional Japan. It is no surprise that the Japanese flag is plain white background, with a big red circle that symbolizes the sun. Neighboring countries, such as China, have been associating Japan with the sun even before the first Japanese dynasty rose to power.

However, with the rise of globalization, Japan has become a popular attraction for tourists all over the world, with Japan earning another nickname from foreigners – “the land of cherry blossoms”.  In contrast, the sun symbolizes the interwoven culture of Japan and it’s neighboring countries in the olden days, while the cherry blossom or the “sakura” symbolizes Japan’s beauty from the eyes of the outside world. Foreigners seeing the line of Sakura trees along Kyoto parts are left with nothing but awed reactions. It is very hard not to associate cherry blossoms with Japan and vice versa. One does not even have to travel to Japan to know about the relationship of one towards the other. But what exactly are cherry blossoms? They are more than just beautiful pink flowers, but they are also the embodiment of the country and it’s true beauty. This article aims to discuss the cherry blossoms or the Sakura in greater depth.

The History and Variations of Sakura in Japan

The cherry blossoms, to the Japanese, are more than just trees. They have been an embodiment of history, culture, and individuality of the Japanese people. There are many speculations on where the magnificent cherry blossom trees originated from, due to their nature, it is widely believed that they originated in the Northern Hemisphere of Eurasia. The Himalayas are a possible place of origin for the cherry blossom trees, with the climate there cold enough for the tree to grow. Regardless of the location of origin, the first cherry blossom tree reached Japan in the prehistoric age. The first records from ancient Japanese civilization known to men come from the Heian Period (ranging between 1794 AD to 1185 AD). Back then, emperors would hold extravagant feasts underneath blooming trees during spring time. The imperial garden was filled with festivity once the first signs of cherry blossoms showed its presence. Plenty works of art in literature and traditional handicrafts that have been retrieved from various periods have given homage to the well-loved flower.

Cherry blossoms, popularly known as “sakura” in Japanese, are flowers from cherry trees. Despite the name cherry blossoms, most of the varieties that have been grown for aesthetic purposes do not bear edible fruits. Coming from the first cherry blossom tree in the prehistoric ages, around three hundred varieties are currently present in modern day Japan. Among the hundred varieties present, some are more common than others. The Somei Yoshino, a pure white cherry blossom, is deemed to be the most popular variety in Japan. The life span of the Somei Yoshino is remarkably short, it’s life span from bloom to fall spans only within a week. The pure white looking tree has been named from the village of Somei (now part of Tokyo), where it was developed between the middle to late 19th century. A lof of the works from the Edo and Meiji were believed to have been inspired by the white Sakura flowers. A unique type of cherry blossom blooms in the fall is the winter Sakura, in Nippon it is termed fuyuzakura. Instead of the usual March to May blooming period, the winter Sakura starts to bloom in the fall during the month of October, and spans until the winter during the month of January, though irregularly.

Cherry Blossoms: Cultural Significance and the Meaning Behind Them

One of the unique aspects of the Japanese culture is the symbolism that they see through elements of nature. Being the national flower, the cherry blossom symbolizes a lot of ideals that are close to the heart of the Japanese. In the past days, the Japanese warriors used to carry samurai swords embellished with the Sakura design. While it now uncommon to associate flowers with masculinity, the Sakura once represented the samurai and the soldiers of Japan. In concept, the fighting men of Japan compared their lives to that of a cherry blossom – short, but in so many ways, powerful. A popular symbol of the Sakura to the Japanese is the representation that life is beautiful, and fragile at the same time. Prior to the establishment of the Japanese republic, the cherry blossom represented loyalty to the emperor. It is a notion that led to fighter plains being decorated with cherry blossom patterns during the two World Wars. Unlike other symbols used by the Japanese to ward off evil and negative entities, the symbol of cherry blossom is associated with nothing but positive ideals in the Japanese culture.

Cherry Blossom Season in Japan: The Best Time to Visit

Cherry blossom season in Japan is given much importance that the government itself leads on forecasting the start of the Japanese season. The reason for the Japanese' high regard for Sakura season is not completely cultural. The importance of the Sakura season has gone beyond cultural significant, but its impact has gone into economic significance as well. The season when cherry blossoms are in bloom is the most desirable time to travel to Japan. The influx of tourists also means a great deal for Japan's robust economy. During this time, Japan is filled with different nationalities booking hotels, paying expensive bullet train fares as their mean of transportation, shopping in the night markets Shinjuku and Shibuya district, going on trips to Mt. Fuji, and basically enjoying all of what Japan has to offer.

Cherry blossom viewing in Japan has been a traditional experience, originating from the early imperial times. The Japanese word for cherry blossom viewing is “Hanami”.  Forecasting the blooming period of cherry blossoms is not an easy task. For one, the period when Sakura trees bloom does not take place at the same time, instead, Hanami takes place at different periods for different cities. The first signs of blooming cherry blossoms appear in Okinawa. The reason for this is the geographical position of Okinawa, which is lower than other prefectures. The blooming period or "Hanami" then moves to the north going to Hokkaido, where the elevation is significantly higher. While the Spring season itself is already associated with cherry blossoms blooming, the exact time for the Sakura to bloom varies every year depending on weather conditions. It would around 15 degrees of temperature to allow cherry blossom flowers to bloom, a lower temperature will make the buds bloom slower than usual. To give a concrete example of the blooming period for sakura every year, 2017 forecasts have predicted that Okinawa’s Hanami season will begin between the third week of January and into the second week of February.  For Nara prefecture, cherry blossom season begins late in March and spans into early April. The last prefecture to experience cherry blossom this year is expected to be Sapporo, with only two weeks for cherry blossom season.

Cherry Blossom Spotting in Kyoto and Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Japan. Aside from the modern city life, there are also hidden natural treasures within Tokyo that tourists may enjoy. For one, the Tama river in the small town of Hamura, Tokyo is a beautiful location, though not a popular destination for many contains a long line of Sakura trees where people may take a stroll, take pictures, have a picnic, and bask in the beauty of cherry blossoms. Aside from Hanami, other activities can be done in Tama such as fishing. Other popular parks are Ueno Onshi, Asukayama, Meguro and Chidorigafuchi. For those who want to experience cherry blossoms to a whole new level, the town of Kuwazu in the Izu peninsula holds a cherry blossom festival between February to March. Kuwazu is a popular Hanami spot, with plenty of positive reviews and high user ratings in the internet as one of the top locations for Hanami in Japan, inviting plenty of visitors every year to check into their resorts, bathe in the hot springs and hike, aside from engaging in cherry blossom viewing and tours.

Not all locations in Tokyo, however, guarantee the presence of cherry blossoms. An example of such is the Ogasawara Island, a remote location in the south with a small population, far from the metropolitan Tokyo city. It is a sunny location that does not experience any cold weather all year round. The climate in Osagawa is closer to that of a tropical island compared to the rest of Japan. Given the cold weather in Japan during cherry blossom season, it can also serve as a change in scenery for people who want to experience a UNESCO World Heritage in Japan. It is quite lucky that the beauty of the island has been preserved despite the number of earthquakes it has experienced in the past.

In Kyoto, there are plenty of popular Hanami spots due to the abundance of nature in the area. There are plenty of parks where tourists may enjoy the cherry blossom viewing for absolutely no cost. In fact, tourists who are intent on seeing cherry blossoms are very likely to find them in the Kyoto area during the day. The easiest way would be to engage in day tours that would visit museums, universities, parks, imperial towns and other popular tourists attractions. For solo travelers who do not wish to engage on a tour, they can easily buy a map of Kyoto and make their own itinerary that would include the many attractions that Kyoto has to offer. There are also of guides all over the internet that allow users to bookmark popular cherry blossom spots in Kyoto.However, tourists who have missed cherry blossom season in Kyoto and Tokyo may opt to other locations such as Hokkaido where cherry blossoms are known to bloom at the latter part of Hanami season.

Sakura Themed Food in Tokyo and other Souvenirs in Kyoto

Japan is a land full of fascinating goods. From Pokémon themed make-up, kawaii stationery tapes, and other ridiculously weird (but cute) household items, there is no doubt that shopping for souvenirs is both a fun and difficult task. It is fun because the choices are endless, but it is also hard for the very same reason. One of the most popular souvenirs for tourists are Kit kat bars. The chocolate covered wafers popularized by the big food manufacturer Nestle are a big hit in Japan. In fact, Kit kat’s popularity in Japan can probably not be surpassed by anywhere else in the world. Some articles would claim that there are over a hundred gourmet Kit Kat flavors in the local Japanese market, some articles claim that the number is an astounding three hundred. Regardless of the real number, the presence of Kit Kats in Japan is a force to be reckoned. The ranges of available flavors vary from the most popular kind, matcha, to strawberry, red bean, custard and even wasabi. However, during the spring time, which is also when the cherry blossoms are in bloom, Kit kat, sells a limited edition chocolate bar flavored Matcha-Sakura. This is a medley of the matcha Kit Kat (deemed to be the most popular variety in Japan), and hints of cherry flavors. While the matcha Kit Kat is already delicious in its own right – wafers covered in white chocolate base joined with premium green tea (matcha) powder flavor, the addition of cherry flavored filling makes it even more spectacular. Unlike the other flavors, however, it is not quite as easy to find. Due to the seasonality of this variant, it is quite elusive even during the spring season. Most convenience stores where Kit Kats are commonly found usually run out of stocks quickly due to its popularity – luckily, for tourists travelling from overseas, the airport departure areas in Japan are usually well stocked to prepare for the demand surge. Those who are bordering on a desperate need to eat the delightful Matcha-Sakura flavored Kit Kat, they are also being sold on Amazon where it is easy to purchase, at a more expensive price of course.

For tourists who want to experience Sakura-infused food while in  Japan, the choices do not fall short as well. During the spring season, even international chains want to ride the cherry blossom hype and create varieties of their best-selling food in Sakura flavors. In Japan’s capital, Tokyo, where a lot of the big fast food joints are present, tourists may easily find a Starbucks selling their Japan exclusive cherry blossom Frappuccino or their Sakura chiffon cake. Both Krispy Kreme and Mister Donut also have their own versions of Sakura-infused donuts. Krispy Kreme's version of the Sakura donut looks like a typical circular donut with filling inside, meanwhile, Mister Donut's version is in the form of a funky looking Japanese donut that they have called “pon de ring”. Mochi balls, another uniquely Japanese food, can also be found in the Sakura assortment during this time. With the Japanese’ creativity and unique tastes, the possibilities of infusing Sakura with other food choices are endless. With Tokyo being the center of modern Japan, it is indeed a haven for tourists who want to experience the city, while being able to enjoy modern food with a cherry blossom twist.

In more traditional places such as Kyoto prefecture, others can opt to buy traditional handcrafted souvenirs embellished with beautiful Sakura prints. Traditional handicrafts would include kimonos, folded fans and ceramic ware decorated with pink flowers. In the Kyoto National Museum, plenty of sakura-themed memorabilia may be bought to take into one's home country.