Writing a thesis for a Master’s degree is a very stressful pursuit. I’ve learned that it’s not for the faint of heart! Since it was Spring Break, I decided that I needed a change of scenery. So, I packed up my thesis and headed for cherry blossoms, 桜 or sakura! No, I didn’t go back to Japan (although that would have been nice). I decided to stay in the country instead. There are several places in the US where you can see cherry blossoms. The most popular city is Washington D.C., which is famous for its National Cherry Blossom Festival. There are also festivals on the east coast: Brooklyn, NY & Philadelphia, PA; in the south: Macon, GA & Nashville, TN; in the Rockies: Denver, CO; and on the west coast: San Francisco, CA & San Diego, CA.
Cherry blossom viewing, which is called 花見 or hanami (lit. flower-watching), is the thing to do in Japan during cherry blossom season. Cherry blossoms are white to pink flowers that bloom for a very short time (on the order of days to a little over a week) in the spring. When the cherry blossoms bloom, it means the coming of spring after winter. The trees burst into fluffy blooms of whites and pinks, and it’s very beautiful.
It is customary to have hanami parties, where you gather with friends in a park with a large amount of cherry blossom trees and have a picnic and play games and drink alcohol. In university, you usually have a picnic with your friends or with your club (like soccer, rugby, dance, literature club, etc.). When you join the working force you usually get together with friends for hanami, but sometimes with co-workers. Hanami is also a great activity for dates or families.
At night, most parks have lighting that spotlights the trees and is sometimes of different colors so that you can do night cherry blossom viewing, or 夜桜 yozakura. The nights can be cool since it’s still spring but it’s a great way to spend the evenings with friends.
I went to the Sankeien (三系園) Japanese Friendship Garden in San Diego, CA for my hanami this year. It was refreshing to be around the cherry blossom trees in a Japanese garden and it was warmer than where I live. It’s a lovely garden, and it was designed by Japanese garden designers following traditional principles. If you’re ever in San Diego, I recommend it! I was just in time to see the peak blooms, and while I was there it got quite hot day-by-day, which causes the cherry blossoms to wilt. I was able to see them in peak condition.
After a week or two of full bloom, cherry blossom petals begin to fall. The petals float down like snow and carpet the ground. It’s all very magical, unless the rain washes the petals off the tree, which is less magical.
When do the cherry blossoms bloom?
The short answer is spring, the long answer is that it depends on where in Japan you are. The cherry blossom bloom begins in the southernmost island of Japan, in Okinawa, and slowly spreads its way north through Kyushu, Kyoto, and Tokyo, until it finally ends in the northernmost island of Hokkaido. The news in Japan has cherry blossom forecasts to predict when they will bloom where. They can begin to bloom in Okinawa as early as January, and in Hokkaido as late as May. In Tokyo, and in my home prefecture of Yamanashi, they tend to bloom around late March and early April. In California, they bloom a little earlier because of the warm weather.
What’s so great about cherry blossoms?
Cherry blossoms have a short blooming period, then fall to the ground and once more the trees are bare. This is very powerful imagery in Japan. It conjures up the fleeting nature of time, the changing of the seasons, and the beauty of nature. Entrance exams are important parts of Japanese schools, especially universities, and the Japanese also prefer to avoid directly delivering bad news. This at one time led to universities waxing poetic, and they would send rejection letters that read something to the effect of “the cherry blossom petals are falling.” This was meant to be a gentler way of phrasing rejection. I’m not sure if it’s used anymore, but it’s a very Japanese way of avoiding saying something negative directly.
Getting away for a bit was a good way to refresh myself and to unwind a little bit. I got quite a bit of writing done, and I was motivated to work hard because of the change of scenery. It was a spur-of-the-moment trip and I’m glad that I decided to go! Have you ever been to a cherry blossom festival? Have you seen the cherry blossoms in Japan this year? Are there cherry blossom festivals in your country?