If one should ask you concerning the spirit of a true Japanese, point to the wild cherry blossom shining in the morning sun.
–Motoori Norinaga, Shikishima no Uta
To many in Japan, the tradition of hanami is more than simply viewing beautiful bits of nature. The flowers represent the tangible manifestation of two symbolic attributes of clouds. A tree’s buds pop up all at once, forming formidable white bodies; they are also ephemeral, adorning the landscape for short periods before disappearing like a wisp into the limitless sky. Thus, a cherry blossom fits neatly into the Buddhist and Shinto philosophies of transient beauty, volatility, mortality, and accepting fate or karma.
A Japanese idiom that plays a large role in many lives is mono no aware, which means “the pathos of things” or “the empathy toward things.” The general gist is an awareness of impermanence, a gentle wistfulness toward this reality, and an understanding that temporary items and experiences can powerfully affect our lives. The blossom summarizes this metaphor.
Unsurprisingly, the cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan.
The cherry blossoms of Japan are trees of the genus Prunus. Though cherry trees that produce fruit are also members of Prunus, they are not the same ornamental trees that grow cherry blossoms, which refers specifically to the blooms. Prunus contains at least 400 species that grow mainly in the Northern Hemisphere. Many Japanese sakura trees are sometimes classified into a subgenus called Cerasus.
In addition to the vast number of individual species, cherry blossoms have been tinkered into dozens or hundreds of cultivars. Just as humans took wild mustard/cabbage and turned them into kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower, they messed around with the output of cherry blossoms without creating new species.
This dabbling and a healthy reverence for the blossoms has created some incredibly gorgeous plants:
In addition to aesthetics and philosophical significance, the cherry blossom emerged as a physical marker for the coming of spring. The flowers sprout early, peaking in March or April.
The blossoms are so important in Japan that the state Meteorological Agency tracks the sakura zensen, the cherry blossom front, as if it’s a weather system. As temperatures warm, the trees bloom from south to north. In Okinawa, they arrive as early as January, reaching Kyoto and Tokyo by the end of March, and finally hitting Hokkaido, the northernmost main island, by the end of April. The public follows this flowery weather system with zeal.
In 1908, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, who had for decades hoped to plant thousands of cherry trees in Washington, D.C., after visiting Japan, proposed creating a “Field of Cherries” around the Tidal Basin. First Lady Helen Herron Taft thought the idea worthy and started the process of procuring the trees. Japanese diplomats and scientists, hearing of the plan to plant sakuras, decided to donate approximately 3,000 trees to the United States, officially as a gift from the city of Tokyo.
The logistics took several years – including a forced burning of an original set of infested trees – but, on 27 March 1912, Helen Taft and Iwa Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador, planted the first cherry blossom trees in Washington. Other gifted trees ended up in New York City’s Sakura Park.
This gift kickstarted an American love of cherry blossoms. Thousands of trees now line the Tidal Basin. Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival gathers thousands of humans to engage in hanami.
The original duo of cherry trees still stands in Washington, at the terminus of 17th street, near the John Paul Jones Memorial.
As impressive as these century-old sakuras are, some of the oldest trees in Japan dwarf their ages. A wild species, called Prunus itosakura, grows slowly but can live for thousands of years. These trees gain a sacred status in Japan, becoming landmarks for Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.
Many of them garner proper names. Some sources deem a trio the “Three Great Cherry Trees of Japan.” Miharu Takizakura – “Waterfall Sakura” – is more than 1,000 years old. Usuzumi Sakura – “Pale Black Ink Sakura” – is 1,500 years old. Jindai-zakura is the oldest, topping two millennia! No wonder they dubbed it “Divine Generation Sakura.”
These ancient trees give a slightly new spin to the impermanence entwined within hanami and mono no aware. Yet, even these great arbors are not immortal and will one day cease to inhabit the planet. “Flower view” their blossoms (or at least photographs of their blossoms) while you can.
Further Reading and Exploration
Japanese Cherry Blossom Guide
History of the Cherry Trees – National Park Service
The 3 Great Cherry Trees of Japan – All About Japan
National Cherry Blossom Festival – Official Website