From March to April every year, millions head to Japan to see their famed cherry trees shower the landscape in pink and white petals
The annual blooming of sakura (cherry blossom) trees in Japan is a sacred occurrence that has been celebrated for over 1,000 years. While its origins are somewhat disputed, with some sources pointing to the 3rd century and others to the 9th, it’s generally agreed that the earliest hanami (flower viewing) parties were reserved for imperial aristocrats and later, the samurai class. By the turn of the 17th century, cherry blossom season was widely celebrated by ordinary folk and today, millions of locals and international visitors flock to Japan in March and April to see the blooms and join in the sakura festivities.
Why is cherry blossom season such a big deal in Japan?
These days, tourists visit Japan during sakura season to see the country’s most famous sights showered in delicate petals. But for the Japanese, the season has a much deeper significance. In addition to being appreciated for its splendid appearance, it has also come to symbolise the ephemeral nature of life and its fleeting beauty.
In Japan, Shinto and Buddhism are the dominant religions, with many people identifying as both. While the beliefs differ in some areas, many of the main ideas are shared between Shintoists and Buddhists, including the worship of nature and life’s impermanence. The short-lived bloom of sakura embodies this principle; it is a stunning yet temporary sight that, at the height of its beauty, quickly vanishes.
When do the cherry trees bloom?
Cherry blossom season is an annual event that occurs every spring, however the exact dates of the bloom vary from year to year, based on weather conditions. A warm spring often leads to early kaika (flowering), while cold temperatures might lead to late blooms. The one thing that’s guaranteed is the pattern of blooming, with the sakura zensen (cherry blossom front) starting in the southern islands near the beginning of the year and heading north, as late as May. For visitors wanting to see the deciduous trees flower in Japan’s most popular cities, Kyoto and Tokyo typically bloom in the last week of March and first two of April.
As the cherry blossom season is big business in Japan, its prediction has become a suitably grand affair, involving scientists, mathematic equations and many of the country’s leading meteorologists. For those wanting up-to-date information, the Sakura Navi app – developed by the Japan Meteorological Corporation – allows people to track the cherry blossom zensen in real time, alerts them when they’re near a viewing spot and contains blooming forecasts for the entire country.