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Japan's Beloved Symbol of Spring

The Fleeting Beauty of Cherry Blossoms

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Around 30,000 cherry trees come into bloom every spring at Mt. Yoshino in Nara Prefecture, which has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Blossoming cherry trees (sakura) have held a special place in Japanese people’s hearts for centuries. The season begins in early March, when the first cherry trees begin to bloom in the south of Japan. Over the next two months, the pink line of the “cherry blossom front” advances gradually north through the Japanese archipelago. Newspapers and regular TV bulletins keep people up to date with the progress of the front and provide predictions on the best times for flower-viewing parties (hanami) in areas throughout the country. The splendor of the blossoms in full bloom is short lived; after a few days, the petals flutter picturesquely to the ground like snow.

The Special Significance of Cherry Trees in JapanThe budding, blossoming, and cascading fall of the cherry petals has charmed and fascinated the Japanese for countless generations. The many famous cherry-blossom spots around the country include mountain spots where cherry trees grow wild, historic temples and castles, and parks.

One place that is particularly famous for the beauty of its blossoms is Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture, whose sacred sites and pilgrimage routes are inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Around 30,000 cherry trees turn an eight-kilometer stretch of mountain ridges bright pink with blossoming flowers every spring.

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Hirosaki Castle in the northeast of Japan is surrounded by some 2,600 cherry trees.

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The Usuzumi-zakura in Neodani, Gifu Prefecture. The petals are light pink when the buds appear, white when the flowers are in full bloom, and a light inky color as the petals fall.

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A boat trip down Sumida River is a great way to enjoy the cherry trees that were first planted along its banks back in the Edo Period.

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Many Japanese castles are popular hanami spots. One well-known example is Hirosaki Castle in Aomori Prefecture, once the political and economic center of northeast Japan during the Edo Period (1603–1868). The main castle keep and the stone walls and moat have survived, providing a splendid backdrop against which to enjoy the timeless sight of cherry trees in full bloom.

Some particularly venerable cherry trees are considered national monuments. One such ancient cherry tree is the Neodani no Usuzumi-zakura in Gifu Prefecture, which has been standing for 1,500 years.

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Throughout Japan in the spring people enjoy the custom of having a drink or picnic while sitting on a sheet spread under a blooming cherry tree.

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The Living Japanese Tradition of Cherry Blossom ViewingHanami parties first became popular among the common people back in the Edo Period—before that, they were a pastime limited to the aristocracy and feudal lords. Today, groups of friends and co-workers spread sheets under the cherry trees to mark the arrival of spring in scenic spots in parks or along the banks of a river. Rice-flour dumplings, called dango,also come in a special pink, white, and green combination at this time of year.

The popularity of such parties during the Edo Period prompted the eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune, to plant cherry trees along the banks of the Sumida River in Edo (present-day Tokyo). Every year, from around late March to late April, the blooming cherry trees along the banks of the river form a marvelous natural “tunnel” that stretches for roughly a kilometer between the Azumabashi and Sakurabashi bridges. More than 300 trees bloom there, including a number of different types of cherry trees, such as Yoshino Cherry and Weeping Cheery. One particularly impressive way to view these blooming trees that has been popular for centuries is to take a boat ride on the Sumida river.

Since ancient times, Japanese people have loved to contemplate the changing seasons and have always looked forward with particular excitement to the blossoming cherry trees. This spirit lives on today in the lively cherry blossom viewing parties that people throughout Japan still enjoy each spring today. (March 2011)

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