Sakura, Japan’s Cherry Trees
Updated: Mar 29
The season of cherry blossoms in Japan lasts a few weeks unless you get to follow the blooms from the north to the south of the island. It is highly anticipated and celebrated every year. I recall witnessing the blooms and their admirers during spring in 2012, 2013, and 2014.
The first time I experienced the beauty of a cherry tree in peak bloom was an inconspicuous surprise next to the small train station of Iriya, Kanagawa, Japan. Its singular existence against a backdrop of hundreds of parked bicycles and an expansive rail side rice field took my breath away. I stopped to admire or stare at it and found myself in the way of the well worn path for the passengers making it to the clockwork arrival of their local station. It would be the first of many I would see in Japan. A year later the city would cut it down to a stub for reasons unbeknownst to me. Its importance is in my memories as it was my initiation to the feeling of curious fascination for sakura. I am grateful to have witnessed it in this way. It was more personal, not overwhelming, and not a spectacle. I wanted more time with it.
I would find out during these fleeting seasons that there are many different species of cherry trees. From the early blooming pink variety, the highly recognizable Yoshino, the excessive petals of the chrysanthemum style blooms, and then all the varieties of hybrids like the weeping cherries. Most of them are ornamental and do not produce marketable fruit (but still edible for birds) as they are only grown for their displays and the feelings people get from seeing them. I find this fact truly remarkable because the amount of tourism these blossoms generate is astounding. I wonder what the value is from just one month of tourism.
I first learned about hanami from a group of US Navy officers stationed in Atsugi. We all took trains up to Tokyo to visit Ueno park for a picnic of mostly just booze. The locals all around us had blue tarp mats that they sat on while we kind of just hung out on the grass. Eventually, everyone in the park was jolly! We were sharing liquors and “kampai-ing” with anyone within reach. Just crowds as respectfully crushed as possible all cohorting under these beautiful flowering trees. It is the most serene amount of madness I have ever participated in for viewing flowers. I would like to one day do it again but with less vodka and chu-hais and more picnic and lounging.
Another way to view them is called hanafubuki. This occurs at the end of the peak bloom and might be my favorite way to admire the blossoms. Once the petals start to float to the ground, there is even more beauty to behold. The floor looks like a bridal procession with pale pink petals covering the walkways and lawns. The breeze can be seen dancing with the way the petals sway or twirl begging to be chased. It is the softest, sweetest rain and being caught in it is the perfect way to spend a spring day in the park. Just remembering it makes me breathe deeper, from the top of my chest, as if I can feel the love of God in that moment again.
There are so many wonderful places all over Japan to visit sakura. My cousins, the Kamoshidas, introduced so many places that astonished me and made me grateful to have been so lucky to know them. The earliest kawaza sakura blooms in our area was on a hilltop in Matsuda with Mt. Fuji in the distance. The walk up was a dramatic switchback under the canopy of pretty pink petals. In between the zig zagged paths, were contrasting yellow rape blossoms on bright green stems. It was a delight to share the space with so many attendees that the ascent and descent had to be made slowly because it gave us more time to enjoy being on this hilltop. I wondered at a small track and with their impish smiles, my cousins encouraged me to try it out. It was a slow rolling slide that went through the trees down a dozen meters of views. My daughter loved the bumpiness of the ride. Had I the privilege of being a child, I would have insisted on riding it again and again.
Another day, they took us for a stroll on a pedestrian walkway in Yokohama where the cherry trees were lining the sidewalks on both sides of a concrete stream. The stream had garden beds filled with beautiful tulips from the water’s edge to the walkway. The path down lower next to the tulips was shaded from the cherry trees above which stretched their limbs across the distance to each other. This is where they taught me about a third way to view and appreciate cherry blossom season which is hanaikada. I watched the petals gathered in the stream slowly making their way along with no rush toward a destination. It was a wonderful way to further enhance and linger amongst these living treasures. Japan seems to have perfected every single way there might be to enjoy a few weeks of the year from their dedicated custodianship of these trees.
There were even bonsai sakura for sale at places like Viva Home every spring. Yes, I did immediately bring one home and then shortly afterwards kill it from my ignorance. I am not perfect. I am only a quarter Japanese.
I thought about mentioning each and every spot I was able to visit at the exact time that the trees were in bloom, but it would diminish the meaning of it for me. The whole of Japan has cherry trees and has a love for cherry trees. It would be a futile effort to list and compare them all. Besides, I think the important factor is their participation. Without that admiration, sakura would just be another choice of a flowering tree for a yard instead of this phenomenon that almost defines a nation. It’s something I hope I get to see again and again for the rest of my life.
I’m extremely grateful to have learned and observed sakura. I love to spend time with them during their blooming seasons. I would love to have my own cherry tree collection one day. After I get more education on how to care for them, of course.
Much love and kind regards, Shainna 🌸