Sakura Blossoms: Behind the Petals
Clouds of Pink
Along the Esplanade in Boston, Massachusetts, a bright pink cloud of blossoms can be seen in the distance, standing out in a sea of greens and yellows that make up the botanical life around the Charles. These starkly different flowers are part of a legendary tree called the cherry blossom, otherwise known as Sakura in Japanese.
Dating back centuries, these trees have crossed international boarders to bring people far and wide, of all ages, to view the mass blooming of the Sakura blossoms.
Mono No Aware
Literally meaning, "a sensitivity to things", mono no aware was coined by the 18th century literary scholar Motoori Norinaga. The phrase encompasses an artistic aesthetic already common in Japan at that time, symbolizing the beauty of life, and the sadness of its inevitable passing.
Do to their mass blooming and short life-cycle, the Sakura blossoms have become a metaphor and symbol of life's beauty, and the ultimate representation of mono no aware.
Hanami: A Brief History
Hanami, meaning "flower viewing" in Japanese, is a centuries old tradition thought to have originated in Japan during the Nara Period (c. 710-794 ce). However during that period, hanami represented viewing the blossoms of plum trees (ume). It was not until the Heian Period (c.794-1185 ce) that hanami switched from plum blossoms to cherry. Many paintings, poems, and other art have represented the blossoming of the Sakura throughout the years, along with people partaking in the flower viewing.
During the early 20th century, officials made an effort to bring sakura to the United States. The first attempt was in 1910, however the tree were found to be infested with insects, and had to be burned. It was in 1912, two years later, that 3,020 trees crossing twelve varieties arrived in Washington, D.C. These trees now symbolized more than just the mono no aware representation; they symbolized a potential relationship and friendship between the United States and Japan. Since the planting of the trees, Japan and the United States have planted and replanted trees to help save the genetic lineages of specific varieties, and help keep a strong relationship between the two countries.
Hanami is as strong as ever in present day. Multiple locations within Japan, the United States, and many other countries, have made the tradition international. Among some of the most popular spots to go and watch blossoms include Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, Osaka, and Fukushima, to name a few in Japan. The United States holds a National Cherry Blossom Festival every year in Washington, D.C. Many other cities, including Boston, have Sakura trees to view.
The hanami can range from an outdoor picnic party under the cherry blossoms, to a stroll in the park to view the canopy, to just looking and contemplating a single tree.
Packing a Hanami Picnic
A tightly packed rice ball (typically triangular in shape). They range from being plain, to having seasoned rice, to fillings including plum paste, salmon, or tuna. Some may dye them pink in honor of the blossoms.
A mildly sweet, ginger-fried chicken often brought due to its bite-size quality and ease to cook. Some festivals provide grills, so bringing meat to grill on site is common as well.
Miso is a popular soybean paste used in sauces and soups. Miso comes in white and red varieties.
Sweet eggrolls made from multiple layers of egg and may include sugar or soysauce.
Mochi is a sweet, sticky rice cake commonly shaped into balls and filled with various pastes or even ice cream.
Bento boxes are a common and easy way to bring a meal to a hanami. Typically, a bento will include rice, fish or meat, and pickled or cooked vegetables.
Where have you participated in a hanami festival?
The Many Varieties of Sakura
Sakura trees come in many varieties ranging from the most commonly known five-petal bloom to blossoms with up to 100 petals. Not to mention the color variations ranging from white to bright pink. Below are just a few.
- Somei Yoshino
These are some of the most commonly known of the Sakura. With their five, white, petals, somei yoshino can be seen not only in nature, but in graphic designs, anime, and more (and this is coming from my own experience).
Although only found in small groups, these light-pink, five-petal Sakura are among the first to bloom in the year, generally blooming in late February.
One of the most common, and among one of the varieties planted in D.C. during 1912, these blossoms have 20 petals and are of a pale-pink color. They typically bloom in mid-April.
Blooming in mid-April, the Kanzan Sakura have a rich pink blossom ranging from 30-50 petals.
Possibly not one of the most known Sakura, the Ukon blossoms have 10-20 distinctive yellow petals. They typically blossom in mid-April.
This Sakura blossom is a late bloomer in late April to early May. They are an incredible blossom containing nearly 100 petals with a pinkish center and pale-pink/white petals.
Known as the Autumn Cherry, this Sakura blossoms in October through January as well as in the spring. These blossoms are small, five-petal, and a very pale pink.
Helpful Info on Sakura
There are a few websites that really help explain the tradition, variation, and festivals of the Sakura.
A great place to see blooming charts, specific Sakura varieties, and some history behind the beautiful flowers.
National Park Service
Learn the complete history of how the Sakura came to the United States.
Library of Congress
History of the Sakura blossoms and the importance they hold on culture and tradition.
The Food of Hanami
Check out more on the food brought to the hanami festivals.