Cherry blossoms in Japan: More than meets the eye
Ah, the beauty of the flowers. The parties with friends under picturesque trees. The wonderful feeling that comes with knowing spring has arrived. There’s nothing quite like cherry blossom season in Japan.
But there is a dark side to everything. A side where things aren’t always so rosy – or, in this case, cherry. We all know about the warm and sunny side of cherry blossoms in Japan. But what about that other side?
Given the long-term local love affair with these delicate flowers, you may wonder how there could possibly be any negative association with them at all. Well, for starters, that hasn’t always been the case.
The “Manyoshu” was written in the seventh to the eighth century and is the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. It only has 40 poems on cherry blossoms, compared to 118 in praise of the then more popular plum blossom. It’s believed that cherry blossoms didn’t catch on until about the 10th century. Before then, as well as after, Japanese haven’t always been so happy to see them.
In fact, before the Edo Period (1603-1867), many people here considered cherry blossoms to be a symbol of bad luck. Because they are very fragile and last for only 10 days or so, people used to think cherry blossoms were a bad omen for relationships – especially marriage.
“Sakurazame” is an old Japanese term that literally means the fading away of a cherry blossom. People once used it to describe a couple that breaks up soon after getting together, like cherry blossoms that fall to the ground soon after they bloom.
Today, the idea has changed completely. Tradition now calls on cherry blossoms to bring good luck during a wedding ceremony. “Sakurayu,” or cherry blossom tea, is often served at weddings for this reason.
Novels as well as poems have often drawn public attention to the cherry blossom – especially for a sort of melancholic contrast between its beauty and short lifespan. One famous novel, “Under the Cherry Trees” by Motojiro Kajii (1901-1932), skips the beauty part altogether in its introduction and draws a direct correlation between death and cherry blossoms.
According to the novels opening, “Dead bodies are buried under cherry blossoms! You have to believe it. Otherwise, you couldn’t possibly explain the beauty of the cherry blossom. I have been restless, lately, because I couldn’t believe in this beauty. But now I finally understand: Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees! You have to believe it.”
In fact, Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery, home to the ash remains of around 360,000 unidentified war dead from World War II, is just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo’s most popular cherry blossom viewing area, Chidorigafuchi Park. And you may have noticed that cherry blossom trees are a common sight at gravesites and cemeteries as well as shrines and temples.
So I wouldn’t recommend digging around any cherry blossom trees to see what lies six feet under – evenv if you have had your fill of blossom viewing party beverages.
Whether true or tall tales, such trivia might make for some interesting small talk while viewing cherry blossom with your friends and family. No matter what you talk about, the sheer beauty of Japan’s cherry blossoms will likely take your breath away in the end.
Cherry Blossom Festivals & Events
AROUND THE KANTO PLAIN
Naval Base Yokosuka: “U.S.-Japan Spring Festival” March 29 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (Open gate event)
Camp Zama: “Cherry Blossom Festival” April 4 from 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m. (Open gate event)
CHIDORIGAFUCHI (Tokyo): March 27-April 5; Chidorigafuchi, the northeastern moat of the Imperial Palace, is one of the most famous cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan and the blooms are illuminated 6:30-10 p.m.; Subway Tozai Line, Kudan-Shita Station; 03-5211-4185.
SUMIDA RIVER CHERRY FESTIVAL (Tokyo): March 28 – early April; about 1,000 trees along the Sumida River, and now a popular spot by visitors because of a new landmark tower “Tokyo Sky Tree” is located close by; five-minute walk from Asakusa Station on Ginza-Line or seven-minute walk from Honjo Azumabashi Station on Toei Asakusa-Line; 03-5608-6951.
YASUKUNI SHRINE CHERRY BLOSSOMS FESTIVAL (Tokyo): March 27-April 5; About 800 cherry trees will be in bloom in the shrine; a five-minute walk from Subway Tozai Line, Kudan-shita Station; 03-3261-8326, URL: www.yasukuni.or.jp.
SHINJUKU GYOEN (Tokyo): March 25-April 24, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; this 144-acre park is a famous blossom viewing spot; 10-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station; 200 yen; 03-3350-0151, URL: www.env.go.jp/garden/shinjukugyoen/english/index.html.
TSUKAYAMA PARK CHERRY BLOSSOMS FESTIVAL (Yokosuka): March 25-April 8; about 1,000 trees on the hill with a view of Yokosuka Port; Tsukayama Park, 25-minute walk from Keikyu Line, Itsumi or Anjinzuka Station; 046-822-2575.
KINUGASA CHERRY BLOSSOMS FESTIVAL (Yokosuka): March 26-April 6; see 2,000 trees, illuminated evenings at Kinugasa-yama Park, 25-minute walk from JR Kinugasa Station; 046-853-1611.
SANKEIEN GARDEN (Yokohama): March 28-April 5, 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; seasonal flowers and historic buildings in the garden; 10-minute bus ride from JR Negishi Line; 500 yen; URL: www.sankeien.or.jp/pdf/guidemap_english.pdf.
HAMURA FLOWER AND WATER FESTIVAL (Yokota area): March 26-April 12; features about 500 trees along the Tama River, illuminated 6-8 p.m., and includes food and street performers; JR Ome Line, Hamura Station; 042-555-6211.
FUSSA CHERRY BLOSSOMS FESTIVAL (Yokota area): March 28-April 5; see beautiful cherry trees along the bank of Tama River,15-minute walk from JR Ushihama Station; 042-551-1511.
ODAWARA CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Kanagawa): March 28 & 29; about 320 trees bloom at Odawara Castle Park and are illuminated 6-9 p.m. during the bloom; a 10-minute walk from JR Odawara Station; Odawara Tourist Association 0465-33-1521.
SASEBO PARK (Sasebo): The 8th annual International Friendship Cherry Blossom Festival will be held at Sasebo Park March 28 from 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. There will be a live music performance, dance performances and local food booths. The blooms will be illuminated 6 - 9 p.m. from March 21 – April 5 at Sasebo Park. 20 mins drive from JR Sasebo Sta. Address: Minatomachi, Hirasecho, Sasebo city. POC: International Friendship Cherry Blossom Festival Office 0956-46-6868.
SAIKAIBASHI PARK (Sasebo): March 21-April 12; about 1,000 trees at the area and are illuminated 6:30 p.m. -9:30 p.m. Local food booth are available. Enjoy the magnificent view of cherry blossom, whirl pool in the ocean, bridge and views of islands at the same time. One of the most popular spot for cherry blossom in Sasebo area.
KINTAIKYO (Iwakuni): from end of March-beginning of April; spectacular view with 3,000 cherry blossom trees around the bridge; free of charge, large picnic area with public bathroom; within 15 mins drive from Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni
HIROSAKI PARK CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL (Aomori): April 23-May 6; about 2,500 trees around Hirosaki Castle and moat bloom and are illuminated sunset-10 p.m.; 20-minute bus ride from JR Hirosaki Station; 300 yen admission 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; 0172-35-3131.
TOWADA CITY CHERRY FESTIVAL (Aomori): April 20-May 5; 156 cherry trees along the Koma Highway to bloom, illuminated between 6-10 p.m.; 30-minute bus ride from JR Shichinohe Towada Station Towada-shi Chuo Station on Tohoku Shinkansen; 0176-51-6772.