Japanese People Love Cherry Blossoms

Sakura cherry trees at Chidorigafuchi

   Japanese people have always been very aware of seasonal changes in nature, and attach great importance to the changing of the seasons. Cherry trees grown specifically for their blossoms, called sakura in Japanese, herald the arrival of spring and have been a favorite for many years. Japan is an island country that stretches a long way from north to south, and so every year sakura blossoms begin to bloom in the warm south of the country first before working their way north. The progress of their blooming is reported on the news, and many visitors take trips to famous sakura viewing sites throughout the country during this time. People enjoy seeing the differences between the various types of sakura blossoms, but it's not just the flowers that are appreciated — people use the bark, leaves and petals in various ways throughout their daily lives as well.

Japan and Sakura: An Enduring Love Story

   In Japan, the act of appreciating sakura blossoms is called hanami. Although this literally means "flower viewing," cherry blossoms are held in such high regard that the word for "flower" specifically refers to sakura in this context.
Hanami has been a popular activity for hundreds of years, and many people still visit famous sakura viewing locations in spring to take a scenic walk or eat and drink underneath the trees. These locations are filled with sakura trees of various species, planted in harmony with surrounding buildings to create an attractive landscape.

The Most Popular Variety Is "Somei-Yoshino"

Sakura blossoms from a Somei-Yoshino tree.

   There are many varieties of sakura, but most people's favorite type is called Somei-Yoshino, which is adored for both its pale pink petals and for how gracefully the petals fall when past full bloom. Somei-Yoshino was first created in the 18th century and is widely planted throughout Japan. All Somei-Yoshino trees across Japan are genetically identical — they're propagated using cuttings, where a branch from an existing tree is planted in the ground, or through a technique called grafting, where a branch from a Somei-Yoshino is attached to the trunk of a different species of tree. Because of this, the blossoms all spectacularly bloom and fall at the same time when planted in the same climate.

Sakura trees (mostly Somei-Yoshino) at Goryokaku in Hokkaido. This view is from a neighboring tower.

   Goryokaku in Hakodate, Hokkaido, is the star-shaped site of an old fortress. It's now open to the public as a park, and is renowned for its sakura trees. There's a beautiful contrast between the Somei-Yoshino trees in full bloom and the star-shaped moat, which you can appreciate not just by walking under the blossoms but also from a nearby tower that provides a wonderful view from above.

Mount Fuji reflected in Lake Kawaguchi, framed with sakura blossoms just starting to scatter.

   Another popular location to appreciate sakura is from the banks of Lake Kawaguchi in Yamanashi Prefecture, where you can enjoy the blooms alongside Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan. The trees there are mainly Somei-Yoshino, but you can also see many other varieties.

A Town Dedicated to Its Sakura Trees

   One type of sakura tree, called shidare-zakura, has branches that droop down like flowing water. Kakunodate in Semboku City, Akita Prefecture, is famous for its shidare-zakura, and the area is renowned for its beautiful scenery that blends old buildings and shidare-zakura together in perfect harmony. In Semboku City, the whole community works hard to protect the local sakura trees and spread the word about their beauty. For example, local children tell visitors about the city's history with sakura, show them some of the best places to appreciate the blossoms, and give the trees fertilizer to keep them healthy. In winter, the area gets a lot of snow, so workers in the city go around knocking the piled-up snow off the trees so their branches don't break under the weight, among other efforts to keep them protected all year round.

Shidare-zakura in Kakunodate, a town full of old buildings.

In Kakunodate, children care for the sakura trees by giving them fertilizer. (Photo courtesy of Akita Prefectural Omagari Special Needs School, Semboku Branch School.)

   Kakunodate is also known for the traditional craft of kabazaiku, where bark from sakura trees is used to make woodworks such as chazutsu tea caddies. It takes a lot of skill to remove the bark, polish it and craft a container with a snugly fitting lid. The finished products have the beautiful pattern and warm texture of bark, coupled with a charming luster that only grows the more you use it.
The bark used in these crafts is carefully removed from the sakura trees to prevent harming them, and grows back on its own after a while. This is a special technique that has been passed down by artisans for years.

The sakura bark is dampened, and a hot piece of iron called a kote is applied to flatten it out. (Photo courtesy of Kakunodate Cooperative Craft Union.)

This chazutsu tea caddy is made from sakura bark. (Photo courtesy of Kakunodate Cooperative Craft Union.)

Sakura Is Also Used in Drinks and Desserts

Yaezakura blossoms have many overlapping petals.

   Sakura blossom has also been used in drinks and desserts for many years. A variety of sakura called yaezakura, which features several layers of overlapping petals, isn't just popular for its appearance: it's also the key ingredient in a hot drink called sakura-yu. Sakura-yu is made by pouring hot water onto pickled sakura blossoms, producing a drink with a slight floral smell that's often served at celebrations.
   Sakuramochi is a confection made from pink-colored mochi rice cakes wrapped in a salt-pickled sakura leaf. It's a delicious treat that combines the unique aroma of sakura leaves with sweet mochi.

Sakuramochi (back) is made using sakura leaves, and sakura-yu (front) is made with the petals.

   As you can tell, sakura blossom is a flower that holds a special place in Japanese people's hearts.

   The lives of Japanese people have been entwined with sakura since ancient times, from appreciating its beauty at famous viewing sites to using it in traditional crafts and foods. Even today, children are helping to preserve and promote cherry trees in their local communities, and a new generation of sakura enthusiasts is blossoming.