What is Cherry Blossom Season?
Because America is so vast, our concept and experience of "the seasons" varies greatly from state to state. In fact, most seasonally-inspired spectator events are regional—like the leaves changing color in New England or the Mojave desert’s wildflower Super Bloom.
However, Japan, as an island with a total land area that's smaller than the state of California, is uniquely positioned to not only experience each distinct season, but does so with its entire population—a fact that has shaped and defined Japanese culture for thousands of years. While springtime might mean different things to different people across the United States, to every Japanese person it means just one thing: cherry blossom season.
The blooming of cherry blossoms, or sakura, occurs every year usually in the last week of March through the first couple weeks of April. This event is so significant and eagerly anticipated that, in 1955, the Japanese Meteorological Agency began forecasting the sakura zensen, or Cherry Blossom Front, tracking the movement of blossoms across Japan so viewers could plan accordingly. Along with the chrysanthemum, sakura is also recognized as Japan’s “unofficial” national flower. Rich in symbolism, and representing purity, spiritual beauty, and the precious and fleeting nature of beauty and life, sakura have become iconic fixtures of Japanese art, literature, fashion, food and more—they even appear on the 100 yen coin. Indeed, sakura are such an important part of Japanese culture that cherry blossom season can often be experienced with all five senses:
Perhaps the most well-known aspect of cherry blossom season is hanami, or flower viewing. In Japan, close attention is paid to the Cherry Blossom Front, and large viewing parties are scheduled for groups (including everyone from friends and family to lovers, coworkers, classmates, and more) to gather and celebrate underneath the pink floral canopies with food, drinks, and music. Not only do the lightly falling pink petals provide a magical, soothing atmosphere for observers, but the color pink itself also evokes a calming, optimistic, and cheerful mood, further enhancing what many consider to be the quintessential spring experience.
If sakura did not exist
How quiet would it be
How calm could I have lived this season
- Ariwara no Narihira
Sakura, with their intense beauty and deep symbolism, have been a favorite subject of Japanese poets and musicians for more than a thousand years. In the springtime, when new romances and transformational life events are on the horizon, poetry and music about sakura are ever-present. From traditional folk songs like Sakura, Sakura to modern day ballads like Naotaro Moriyama’s “Sakura”, cherry blossoms, and their representation of transient beauty, love, and life, continue to provide emotional springtime inspiration that keeps sakura on the airwaves as well as in people’s hearts and minds.
Stores in Japan typically begin stocking sakura-themed inventory in February. This helps to ensure that there is an abundant array of sakura-derived food and drink to help set the mood for cherry blossom season. Sakura leaves, petals, and bark are all used to create springtime delicacies designed to make the most of the short-lived blossoms. Sakuramochi is one traditional Japanese treat that is ubiquitous during the spring season.
This mochi cake is filled with sweet bean paste and wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf, providing a contrast of salty, sour, and sweet that is a perfect complement to the symbolism of the blossoms themselves. Sakurayu, or cherry blossom tea, is another springtime staple. This tea is made from pickled cherry blossoms, which impart a slightly salty and subtly sweet flavor when steeped.