Cherry Blossoms—Delicate Petals Long Admired
By Awake! writer in Japan
SINCE ancient times the Japanese have extolled the beauty of the sakura—the Japanese flowering cherry. So beloved are its delicate petals that the cherry blossom has risen above all other flowers in popularity and holds a special place in the history and culture of Japan. In fact, in some contexts the word “flower” in Japanese has come to mean the sakura. For more than a thousand years, the Japanese have adored cherry blossoms.
Numerous cherry trees gracefully dot the Japanese isles. You do not have to travel very far to come across one of the 300 or so varieties grown here. Each flower usually has five petals that are notched at the edges, although some varieties have many more petals. Several flowers form a single cluster. The colors of the petals range from nearly white to pink and even crimson, also including the subtle hues in between. The form and color of these blossoms have long been associated with symbols of purity and simplicity.
The sight of a cherry tree in full bloom commands attention. When bathed in soft sunlight filtering through clouds, its dainty petals give off a pinkish-white glow. An entire grove of cherry trees is even more stunning to behold.
A Magnificent Display
The Yoshino Mountains have been renowned for white cherry blossoms. This area has four large groves with over 100,000 cherry trees. One section is called Hitome Senbon, meaning ‘a thousand cherry trees at a glance.’ Literally as far as the eye can see, white blossoms brighten the surrounding hillside, giving it the appearance of being covered with snow. No wonder, then, that upwards of 350,000 people flock there each year to see the magnificent display!
Depending on how the cherry trees are planted, fascinating effects can be obtained. For example, parallel rows of cherry trees whose boughs reach out to touch one another form a ‘cherry tunnel.’ Imagine the cluster upon cluster of cherry blossoms overhead providing a pinkish-white canopy while underfoot the ground is sprinkled with petals.
The delicate flowers, however, do not last long—their peak being only two to three days. Depending on the weather, it may be even shorter.
Hanami—A Picnic Under Cherry Trees
The first wave of delicate blossoms begins in the south of the Japanese archipelago, in Okinawa, during January and continues progressively northward to Hokkaido until late May. This movement is also known as the cherry blossom front. Television, radio, newspapers, and even the Internet regularly report on the progress of the front. The news that the Japanese cherry trees are blooming causes millions to throng to areas where they can see them.
The custom of hanami, or “flower viewing,” dates back to the ancient past. And the flower in this case is always the cherry blossom. Already in the Heian era (794-1185), the nobility held parties to admire the sakura. In 1598 a warlord by the name of Hideyoshi Toyotomi held a cherry-blossom viewing party at the Daigoji temple in Kyoto. All the feudal lords as well as distinguished guests gathered under the flowering trees and recited poems that praised the blossoms. The women adorned themselves with garments featuring the elegant pattern of the sakura.
In the Edo period (1603-1867), the common people adopted this form of leisure—picnicking under blooming cherry trees. They ate, drank, sang, and danced while admiring the blossoms with their family and friends. The popular custom of hanami continues to be followed down to our day, with multitudes heading to their favorite retreat to enjoy the profusion of petals.
Woven into the fabric of Japanese history and culture is the recurring theme of the sakura. Its motifs abound in literature, poetry, theater, and music. Throughout the centuries, artists have captured the splendor of the cherry blossoms on surfaces ranging from pottery to folding screens.
The samurai also adopted sakura. Being completely devoted to their master, they were expected to offer up their life at a moment’s notice. The samurai saw in cherry blossoms a symbol of the brevity of life. Concerning this the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan comments: “Since the cherry flowers bloom very briefly and then scatter, they have also become a convenient symbol of the Japanese aesthetic sense, an ephemeral beauty.”
The national admiration of the sakura continues until today. The lovely kimono often has the pattern of cherry blossoms. The sakura design can also be found on household items, scarves, and clothing. So dearly loved is this flower that parents will even proudly name their beautiful baby girls Sakura, in honor of the cherry blossom.
Fragile in form and yet powerful enough to influence the culture of a nation, the cherry blossom is an outstanding example of the subtle beauty found among our Creator’s masterful works.
[Box/Picture on page 15]
Flowering Cherry Trees
The fine wood from the cherry tree can be used for carvings, furniture, and block printing. But such uses have not given the cherry tree its distinction in Japan. Neither has its fruit. Unlike its cousins in other parts of the world, the Japanese cherry tree is grown mainly for its blossoms, which have won the hearts of so many.
Flowering cherry trees can easily be produced from seedlings. Thus, cherry trees have been planted along riverbanks and main thoroughfares as well as in numerous parks and gardens throughout the country.
[Box on page 15]
Cherry Blossom Blizzard
A unique illusion of pink snow is created when the cherry tree sheds its myriad of petals. Suddenly and without warning, the petals leave the bough and gracefully fall to the ground. A strong gust of wind can send down a flurry of these—randomly scattering them. The Japanese call this phenomenon sakura fubuki, or cherry blossom blizzard. The ground below becomes covered with a delightful pink carpet. Few scenes in nature can match the serenity of these fragile fallen petals.
[Picture on page 16, 17]
“Hanami”—picnicking under blooming cherry trees
[Picture on page 17]
A ‘cherry tunnel’