Sakura and its significance in Japanese culture

 

All you need to know about Sakura the most important symbol of Japan

Every January there is one single news-event that is frantically waited for by millions of Japanese people. And this is the release of the yearly Blossom Forecast. Before you would start thinking what on Earth this means, let me explain it to you. This is the national forecast news, which foresees the exact times when cherry blossoms would start blooming on the whole area of Japan. The Blossom Forecast is released every year by the Japan Meteorological Corporation and despite this not appearing significant, in Japan, it’s among the most significant events of every year. You cannot imagine how much attention is being placed on this forecast to be as accurate as humanly possible.

 

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Cherry Blossom forecast for 2020

Blossoming periods would govern people’s lives in any given area in Japan. This is according to which millions of Japanese would start planning their vacations. cherry blossom viewing bus trips, family gatherings and many more activities, which all can be connected in some way or form to cherry blossom viewing. This forecast would also signify all hotels, restaurants, stores when their peak season of the year would arrive. This roughly counts for a 2-3 week period.

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Sakura or cherry blossom has been serving as an artistic inspiration for several centuries

During Cherry Blossoming there is a huge competition among people who can view the highest amount of places which were appointed to being the most beautiful Cherry blossom viewing spots all around Japan. Many people go at least on 2-3 bus trips, to not miss out on some of these spots.

Naturally, blossoming happens according to the climate. This way, the earliest blossoming would start in the South, in Fukuoka already at the end of March, then going up Northwards, initially the blossoming would finish in the North in Sapporo around the 10th May.

If you haven’t been to Japan during the cherry blossom season, you won’t be able to fully comprehend and understand its significance. To say that people go crazy during this period almost sounds like an understatement. The whole of Japan goes frantic! People run around like maniacs, everybody wants to get the best, most scenic picnic under a cherry tree and there are very harsh competitions for that. Everyone is running around making thousands of photos and everyone sends good wishes for their friends and family.

Sakura and its cultural roots

So, why is all this craze? I’ve been planning to write a post in an attempt to fully cover the significance and importance of sakura or cherry blossom as a symbol in Japanese life and culture. As many people already know, Sakura is, in fact, the strongest symbol of Japan and a staple of beauty at the same time. Sakura literally governs the way of Japanese life and culture. Let’s look at all the things cherry blossoms mean for Japanese people. Sakura has been the key characteristic feature in all the Japanese gardens since ancient times. They are tended well, they are taken high care of so that they can show their bloom in their full beauty when the time comes. The tending of cherry trees is probably originated in China where however its symbolism is completely different from that of Japan. It’s likely to assume cherry trees were primarily kept for their beauty back in the day and all the symbolic meaning was only later attributed to them.

Japan has long been a huge fan of fleeting beauty, which can disappear at any moment. The reason for this is simple. Death has been an essential part of daily life s. Japan as a group of islands stands on active volcanic ground. To this day, it has earthquakes on almost a daily level. One eruption can kill thousands and can destroy tens of thousands of homes. This is why, back in the day Japanese already had to learn to seize the day and to marvel at every beauty in life that can go away just like life, at any moment. One eruption can make it all go away in a matter of hours. Fuji, the holy mountain of Japan is, in fact, an active volcano. If it ever erupts, that may easily mean the end of most of the current Japan. The beauty however deadly it has therefore captured Japanese in its reality. Fuji and Sakura are to date the strongest symbols of the Japanese mindset as well as for Japanese culture.

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Mountain Fuji surrounded by cherry blossoms

Sakura and Bushido – the feudal times

The beauty of Cherry blossoms is very inspirational and so they inspired arts, both visual and verbal arts. Japan was a country already back in the day, which put lots of significance on respecting nature. The timed beauty of the cherry flowers, which blossom for roughly 2 weeks then disappear, has already inspired people to view these beautiful blossoms as the key symbol of people’s life on Earth. Short-lived, but beautiful. The fleeting petals to date symbolize the beauty of life lost.

Samurai culture and the Bushido (way of the warrior) that lasted  up until the end of World War II

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Hanami party held back in the old days

Samurai culture was the longest-lasting culture in Japan. This fighting culture, which already put lots of significance for warriors not only being good at fighting but also to have an eye for beauty and arts, the short-lived beauty of the Sakura also meant to symbolize the shortness of life, death and the beauty of dying early. This was a philosophy that was handy at that time when Samurai would naturally not live long, thanks to all the fights between clans during the Middle Ages. The petals of Sakura were the symbol of the fleeting life, of blood and of death. Kamikaze planes all had the symbol of cherry blossom or Sakura painted on their planes. They were told, they are to fall and die a majestic death, like the petals of beautiful sakura fall. On a lighter note, o-Hanami parties have started to become popular already back in these days.

Buddhism and Sakura

The embracing of Buddhism has helped turn the symbolism of Sakura less sour and helped in making people view the beauty of Cherry blossoms with less melancholy and with more happiness. Buddhism teaches us to embrace life, all the happy moments and to be thankful and grateful, no matter life is short every single people do have significance and they are all given the chance to enjoy the moments of happiness before the end. The sweet and sour, merry fatalism is a very Japanese concept ever since.

All the things Sakura symbolizes

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Spectacular view of cherry blossoms by night

New start: with the end comes a new start. This is the key concept in Buddhism and this is what the cherry blossom season perfectly embodies. The season of blossoming that’s roughly the beginning of April in the Tokyo area) is also the season of the new school years to start. On top of it, it’s also the start of the new fiscal year. People like to take upon new roles, new jobs and all in all to start afresh. In this way, cherry blossoming’s significance is much like the significance of the Chinese New Year in China.

Hope: with new start always comes hope. Sakura is a strong symbol for hope for everything to turn out well.

Change: change is a strong concept when it comes to the symbolism of Sakura. Change is also part of a challenge. So, one has to be ready and welcome also the challenging situations in life.

Nostalgy: if there was ever a favorite feeling to be defined for Japanese people it should definitely be nostalgy. Nostalgy is one key feeling or atmosphere to define Sakura. Those happy and sad thoughts in a mix that bring the past back. A sort of melancholic remembrance. Sakura is largely defined by nostalgy that’s hand in hand with melancholy, another favored feeling for many Japanese people.

Mono-no aware: this is a very Japanese concept a feeling, that can be summed up as a collective nostalgy, melancholy accompanied by the will or wish to be elsewhere, doing something entirely different. Mono no aware is at the core of the Japanese soul. I will definitely try to tell more about this very specific feeling later on.

 

Carpe diem: Seize the day as the Romans said. And this is an important concept of the Cherry Blossoming season. To pay attention to friends, family, to enjoy the moment, the day and not worry all so much about the future ( and forget to live in the moment). Sakura is all about enjoying the fleeting, happy moments, all the beauty we can embrace and be happy that we had the chance for doing so.

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the beauty of sakura is very often captured in anime

Death and rebirth: yes, no matter how much we try to avoid Cherry Blossoms in Japan are a strong symbol of death. This is no wonder, as said above death was and still is a very possible reality for most Japanese living in highly active, tectonic soil or can be in danger due to a tsunami. Back in the day, this was the reason all the houses were built in an easy and simple way. Because this way, they could be easily rebuilt, after an earthquake. This way, the Japanese were way closer to death since the start of times, than the majority of people are in other parts of the world. This has very strongly shaped Japanese culture and gave an ultimately fatalistic edge to it, that’s present to this day, However, thanks to Buddhism the concept of death could be positively paired up with the concept of rebirth to make the Japanese view of life more optimistic. But fleeting petals of cherry blossoms are very often used to mark the coming of death among other things. The symbolism of cherry blossoms still strongly connects Buddhist funerals ( funerals are mostly Buddhist in Japan) with all the white ( used in Buddhism as the key mourning color, with white also symbolizing renewal).

The fleeting nature and shortness of life: life is short and nothing can symbolize this better than the short-lived Sakura which is so beautiful when it blossoms, it really needs to be celebrated. Just like people need to celebrate their life on earth. This concept connects strongly with the Carpe Diem ( seize the day) concept.

Purity, innocence: the strong concept that comes with the heavy use of pink in Japan can be easily translated to the color being used as a metaphor of the cherry blossoms, which are new, pure and innocent as they blossom. Pink is, therefore, a base color in Japanese aesthetics to this day. It’s targeted use to signify innocence, purity, and childhood all connect to the concept of Sakura.

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Sakura is a strong symbol of the warrior spirit.

Friendship, connection

While cherry blossoms are so highly regarded that they are not used for symbolizing love, they are strongly used to symbolize friendship and a sort of an eternal connection between people that goes much deeper than the concept of love. While the concept of love may have naughty, sexual undertones, the real connection is way above that. And this is exactly what Sakura stands for in symbolizing strong, very strong friendships.

The Beauty of life: cherry blossoms also stand for beauty but in its purest form ( see purity and innocence).

The significance of O-Hanami

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O-Hanami expectations

If you live in Japan, then you will learn that there is no way that you won’t attend at least one O-Hanami party. Every school and every workplace have their team building gatherings this time of the year. O-Hanami or Hanami literally means flower watching. And the concept of O-Hanami is to connect friends or family time with nature and enjoy time out during the cherry blossoming season. It’s hard to imagine all the crowds which fill up all possible free space, parks in an attempt to enjoy time out. This is a tradition, that’s basically obligatory. Every single park and garden in Japan looks for the most aesthetic ways to enlighten and represent their cherry trees in order to provide a handy spot for visitors.

O-Hanami also inspires tons of seasonal meals ( O-hanami bento), food, lovely looking sweets to be sold all around Japan. You can spot the most beautiful sets in traditional sweet stores ( the ones which are numerous in Old Kyoto for instance). These sweets oftentimes look so lovely, it seems too bad to eat them.

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Sakura blossom inspired sweets: Dango and Manju are my favorites

Evening and night time cherry blossom watching has a different word for it, it’s called Yozakura.

If you live in Japan for a longer period of time, you will see that O-Hanami parties are less on the philosophical side and concentrate way more on becoming drunk as hell. But, all in all, this is the key concept of Sakura: to seize the day! To be fair because of the huge crowds a large number of people choose to escape cities and go somewhere more silent to celebrate this season.

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the harsh reality of Hanami in the larger cities and popular areas

About finding the best O-Hanami spots

Most people go to Kyoto and Nara during the Cherry Blossom season, And I can totally understand why.  I was among the lucky who could be in Old Kyoto during Hanami and it’s spectacular. Unfortunately, to date, the touristic spots get so crowded that I really suggest you to rather go out and look for a low key spot outside of cities, which is not too popular among tourists, to really be able to enjoy the beauty of cherry blossom season.

Sakura in Anime

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Sakura is a strong aspect of Manga and Anime symbolism

Sakura is of course very often used in Anime and Manga arts too. No wonder, that, of course, like every culturally significant object Sakura was also personified. Cardcaptor Sakura is one of the most popular anime series in Japan. Manga and anime fans all around the world are crazy for sakura. The sight of fleeting cherry blossom petals makes anime fans go crazy. The internet is therefore stacked with related anime imaginary and wallpapers too.

I have found a very good link that describes some of the most popular Sakura Anime with a strong connection to this beautiful symbolic flower. But of course, the sakura is present in the large majority of anime this or that way.

Artworks: tons of old and new artworks get inspiration from Sakura. Check out this link I have found on Sakura-inspired artworks which feature several fantastic paintings.

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Cardcaptor Sakura

Last, but not least to all living in Japan I wish a wonderful O-Hanami and Sakura season well in advance. To those who plan on visiting Japan, it’s wise to do so right after O-Hanami ( the weather is the best from April to June).

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