Japan’s rite of spring

Over the next two and a half months, across much of the northern hemisphere, cherry trees in their millions will blossom. These arboreal harbingers of spring are admired for their brief but often spectacular display, made even more impressive when trees are planted en masse. In some cultivars the blossom is so blousy and exuberant it borders on bad taste – although that hasn’t stopped the plant breeders from developing even more outlandish forms over the years.

As much as cherries are enjoyed worldwide, in Japan the relationship between people and cherry blossom (sakura) goes far deeper than floricultural appreciation. As a Japanese friend once told me, for many the cherry blossom is Japan, or at least a potent symbol of the national character of the Japanese people. Historically the short but spectacular flowering season of the cherry was viewed as an allegory for the frequently brief but glorious life of the samurai, prompting the saying, “The cherry is among flowers as the samurai is among men.”

Prunus x yedoensis

Cherry blossom is strongly associated with the cultural tradition of mono no aware, the awareness of the impermanence and transience of things, and consequent restrained sadness for their passing. Unsurprisingly, sakura features heavily in Japanese art, in particular traditional ukiyo-e woodblock printing, and memorably in Hiroshige’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”.

The significance of the cherry isn’t merely historic or esoteric. The vast numbers of Japanese people who engage in the ritual of flower viewing (hanami) make cherry blossom season the largest mass participation floral event on the planet.

Geisha beneath cherries in Kyoto

From early March onwards the progress of the sakura zensen – the cherry blossom front – is reported daily (from 1951 this was carried out by the Japan Meteorological Agency but now commercial meteorologists have taken over the forecasting) usually as part of the daily weather forecast. The sakura zensen begins in the south of the archipelago, around the subtropical islands of Okinawa. Depending on the weather and relative warmth of a particular year, the first flush of flowering, the kaika, can be as early as January. As spring weather spreads north across Japan the sakura zensen heads north too, finishing in Hokkaido usually around May. The progress of the blossom front is measured using 59 sample trees across the country, located in regions corresponding to the main weather stations. These sample trees are regularly reviewed and, as the older trees lose their vigour and head into decrepitude, get felled by typhoons or collapse under snowfall, young replacements are selected to take over.

Prunus serrulata

The most popular and widely planted sakura tree is Prunus x yedoensis, the somei-yoshino. This hybrid of unknown parentage occurs naturally in the wild in Japan and features prominently in the landscape as well as in gardens and parks as a cultivated tree. Unlike the more highly bred flowering cherries, some of which feature blossom that is overly large, overly pink and over-endowed with petals, P x yedoensis exudes class. It’s relatively compact, around 5m-8m, with small, fragrant pale pink flowers held in clusters. These appear before the foliage and the resulting canopy of blossom gives rise to another Japanese sakura tradition; that the trees are earthbound clouds. Somei-yoshino is the most celebrated sakura tree but by no means the only one. There are more than 100 endemic cherry blossom tree varieties in Japan, a mixture of natives, naturally occurring hybrids and “man-made” hybrids.

‘New Fuji, Meguro’ by Ando Hiroshige (1857)

During the months that the sakura zensen sweeps north, the cherry blossom is celebrated through the tradition of hanami at public parks, shrines and temples. When the sakura is at its peak (mankai), businesses vary their trading hours to give staff the time to enjoy hanami. The best spots are overflowing with people taking walks, on lunch breaks, visiting in the evening (when trees are often illuminated and firework displays held) or enjoying the greatest of all hanami traditions – a picnic. The practice of picnicking beneath a flowering cherry tree dates from at least the Heian period (794-1185) and is possibly even older than that. Initially solely the preserve of the imperial family and their court, the practice then became popular with the samurai and by the Edo period (1600-1868) was a national pastime, encouraged by the Tokugawa shogunate. Today a full-blooded hanami picnic involves the kind of meticulous planning usually applied to reserving the best spot on the beach. At the most popular parks, the only way to ensure a premium location is by nominating a member of the family or a friend to rise early and stake out a spot in the park. This involves spreading a waterproof groundsheet or traditional tatami mat on the grass, taking up position on the groundsheet and then sitting tight with a determined look for seven or eight hours until the rest of the party arrive.

Cherry trees in bloom over the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto

Visiting one of the main city parks in peak blossom season can be entirely overwhelming. The heads of the trees are full of blossom, the air gently tinged with fragrance – the smell is a watered-down version of almond blossom – while the ground beneath is a bustling sea of people. Although sakura zensen takes months to traverse the country, mankai can be a matter of three or four days before the petals begin to fall. The most famous hanami locations, such as the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto or Ueno Park in Tokyo, can become impossibly busy, and trying to book a hotel room at short notice just plain impossible. But it’s worth the effort, especially if you’re willing to think like a local and embrace the moment. Smart travellers will take to locations where the load is more widely spread, such as the Fuji Five Lakes area, where the Chureito Pagoda provides spectacular views across the somei-yoshino to Mt Fuji. As the sakura zensen starts early in Okinawa and finishes late in Hokkaido, travelling out of season is an option. Megijima Island near Takamatsu is an early April highlight, with the cherry blossom in Matsumae Park in Hokkaido peaking in early to mid-May.

A cherry blossom viewing party, or ‘hanami’, in the grounds of Yasaka shrine in Kyoto

Where else to see flowering cherries

Although Japan has the greatest density of spectacular sakura locations, there are some very fine cherry blossom collections elsewhere. There are two notable plantings in the US, resulting from a gift from Japan of more than 3,000 sakura trees in 1912. These were planted around the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (where there is now an annual cherry blossom festival), and at Sakura Park in Morningside Heights, New York City. But the biggest collection of flowering cherries in the US is at Branch Brook Park, Newark, with more than 4,300 trees.

Batsford Arboretum in Gloucestershire, UK, has a national collection of sato-sakura cherries, and there is a famous cherry walk on the Stray, the public green space in the centre of Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

The Botanical Garden of Curitiba, Brazil, has a collection of flowering cherry trees, partly as a result of the Japanese diaspora to Brazil. Cherries can often be seen wherever there are notable Japanese populations.

Cowra Japanese Garden in Australia, designed by Ken Nakajima, is the largest Japanese garden in the southern hemisphere and commemorates the rebuilding of ties between the two countries following the second world war.

Hamburg, Germany

One of the largest hanami festivals outside Japan takes place at the Alster Lakes in Hamburg, where several thousand sakura trees have been planted. The festival attracts tens of thousands of people and culminates in a traditional fireworks display.

Vancouver is well known for its flowering cherries, many of them street trees, and holds an annual cherry blossom festival. High Park in Toronto has a good collection of somei-yoshino, many of them given as gifts to the city by Japan.

Matthew Wilson is managing director of Clifton Nurseries in London

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