Monday, July 11, 2011

Sakura : The Cherry Blossom

Having written about Plum Blossoms in my previous post, I could not resist the urge to do a quick followup with a post on Sakura. A blog about Japan and not writing about Sakura, unimaginable !

Towards the ends of spring, Japan’s floral beauty is at its peak. It is the time when the last of the blossoms is in full bloom. Only one thing seems to be on everyone’s mind. Sakura. To the uninitiated, Sakura is the Japanese name for Cherry Blossoms. The weather is perfect- neither warm nor cold. The mood is upbeat in line with the season. The blossom laden trees are truly a breathtaking sight. A nature lover couldn’t think of a better time to be in Japan.

In a manner similar to the Plum Blossoms, cherry blossom also begins in south Japan, Okinawa to be precise, somewhere around January and gradually moves towards the other parts of Japan. By the time the blossoms begin in Tokyo or Tohoku region it is late March. 

The season ends in Hokkaido around mid April. Locals religiously follow the blossom forecast announced from time to time by the weather bureau and visit the shrines, parks and blossom spots in large numbers. It is a merry making time with families and friends gathering together for Hanami parties under the cherry blossom time. Sakura Hanami parties started around the Heian period and owe their origin to the Ume Hanami parties. Like many other Japanese customs, this custom also began with the royal family and elite holding elaborate Hanami ceremonies. Over a period it became a widely followed custom among common public.

The importance of Sakura is not limited to these public Hanami ceremonies. A 100 yen coin has a picture of Sakura on it. The sakura design is common on cloth, kimonos, crockery, Japanese paintings and even stationery like origami paper. The name Sakura is also a common name among Japanese girls, though these days the trend seems to have changed. Popular items like chocolates and biscuits also have a seasonal version like this Sakura special Kit Kat. 

Even during the Imperial days, it is said that the Japanese planted cherry trees in places which they conquered and these trees indicated that land as Japanese territory. Part of China and South Korea which were under Japanese rule for some time still have Cherry Blossom trees which were planted during the Japanese rule. Even in South Korea, where I lived for a short period before moving to Japan, Blossom viewing is popular. Many of the cherry trees planted there during the Japanese rule are said to have been destroyed to indicate the end of Japanese rule.

In Japan it is popular to visit Shrines or parks at night to view Blossoms. During the peak of the blossom season, the shrines or parks which hold the Hanami Matsuri light up the sakura trees with lanterns and electric lights. The beauty of the blossoms is highlighted against the dark night sky due to this lanterns. A full moon night complements the blossom lights well and locals turn up in large numbers to enjoy this spectacle.

Though I had seen images of Sakura even before I came to Japan, I was not aware that many varieties of Cherry blossom are trees which do not produce fruit and cultivated purely for their ornamental purpose. Also the Japanese cherry looks and tastes different from the American cherries which I had tasted before.

Every year millions of tourists from all over the world travel to Japan during the Cherry Blossom season. Cherry Blossom season is one of the best seasons to visit Japan, though airfares may be a bit expensive around this time of the year.

Sakura has a place even in the Japanese cuisine. The season’s speciality is a traditional sweet , a confectionary to be precise, called “Sakura mochi”. It is a rice cake with a red bean paste stuffing and which is rolled in a sakura leaf. The leaf gives a distinct aroma to the sweet and needs to be eaten alongwith the mochi.  Sakuramochi  is traditionally eaten on March 3rd which is the day of Hina matsuri, also called the Girl’s festival day. On this day it can be purchased at most stores and confectioners and even at the convenience stores like 7 Eleven. I was told that only a particular variety of Sakura leaf can be used and that too needs to be pickled for use in the Sakuramochi.

However this year’s Sakura season was a subdued affair in the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake.  Apart from the usual tea ceremonies and events, many local authorities took the occasion to do their bit of charity and raised funds towards aiding relief operations. For instance, recently it was reported that the Japan Mint at Osaka had collected approx 11.97 million Yen from donations towards quake and tsunami relief. These donations were collected during cherry blossom viewing on its grounds which were opened to public between April 14 to 20. Elsewhere in Iwate, Aomori, Akita prefectures, special Hanami parties were held for the evacuees. While special ceremonies and events are held during Cherry Blossom viewing season, this year many such events were cancelled due to the crisis in North east Japan.  

Though this year's Cherry Blossom season was subdued in its celebration but nevertheless it succeeded in bringing cheer and renewing hopes among the Japanese people.

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