Walking to friend's flat yesterday I was stopped in my tracks by breathtaking beauty of a cherry tree in full bloom, leaning out over the pavement from someone's garden, sumptuous soft-pink blossom covering the branches like a thick snowfall. No wonder the Japanese have held cherry blossom viewings and festivities for over a millennium. In the 8th century, during the Heian Period in Japan, cherry trees were grown in the grounds of the royal family in Kyoto and cultivated to optimise their beauty. During the flowering season the elite classes —noble families, poets, singers and other aristocrats— would gather and celebrate under the trees.
The practice of hanami, flower viewing, continues to this day, following the blossoming up the country from January in Okinawa to late April Hokkaido, with the blossom usually appearing in Kyoto and Tokyo in late March. The Japanese Meteorological Agency report on the sakura zensen, the cherry-blossom front, so that the public can plan their eagerly awaited viewings.
March 29th – April 13th also marks the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival of Washington DC. This commemorates the gift of 3,020 cherry trees given to the US by Japan in 1912 as a symbol the growing friendship between the two nations. This gift was renewed in 1965 with a further 3,800 trees which can be seen in their spring glory in West Potomac Park. Many other US cities now also have large collections of flowering Japanese cherry trees, including Los Angleles, Philadelphia and Macon in Georgia.
In China, cherry blossom is a symbol of feminine beauty and love, but in Japan the brief, though beautiful, blossoming of the cherry is seen to exemplify the transient and ephemeral nature of life. This principle, known as mono no aware, is a key idea in Japanese art, pointing to an appreciation of the extreme beauty of the present, that is forever changing, forever dying. The great beauty and quick fading of the cherry blossom is therefore an important emblem in much Japanese art, music and poetry.
Enjoy it while it's here!