As the trees start to bud and temperatures begin to rise, so too does the number of tourists who travel to Japan in hopes of viewing the famous cherry blossoms (or sakura in Japanese). But what is the meaning behind this age-old tradition and is it losing its cultural significance?
Sakura season in Japan is famous because, for just a few weeks out of the year, the cherry and plum (ume) blossoms bloom creating a spectacular display of vibrant pink and white coupled with the sweet scents of floral and cinnamon.
These few weeks are especially cherished because these blossoms symbolize the fleeting nature of life and the Buddhist importance of living in the present moment. Just like the life cycle, the blossoms burst into the world, live a beautifully short life, then get swept away by the wind or rain and are gone in an instant. Is human life not the same? Do we not also come into this world and live a brief life that can be taken away at any moment?
That is why the Japanese people use sakura season to remind themselves to slow down and take time to appreciate life. There are countless festivals dedicated to celebrating the cherry blossoms that take place around the country. Additionally, families and friends get together and hold the tradition of hanami (sakura blossom viewing) where they usually set up a blanket or tarp at a local park and have a picnic under the beautiful trees.
There are countless examples throughout Japanese history that prove how important the sakura blossoms are to the Japanese people. From the samurai warriors of feudal Japan to the kamikaze pilots in WWII, the Japanese have always viewed cherry blossoms as a symbol of their mortality and the beauty of life.
In addition to being a symbol for life, sakura are also viewed as a symbol for spring and revival. After long, cold winters the blooming cherry blossoms show the people that spring is on the way and it marks the beginning of the agricultural season and of reproduction.
As I mentioned above, the word hanami means "the cherry blossom viewing." Hanami is a chance to take a break from work, school, and everyday stresses to take time and appreciate life and living in the moment.
Many Japanese families and friends will set aside a time to have a picnic and drinks and will sit under the cherry blossoms together. Some even go so far as to wake up at the crack of dawn to reserve the best viewing spots and will stay there for the entire day.
Today, many companies found a way to capitalize on cherry blossom season by creating limited-time products. Everyone from Starbucks to McDonalds to 7-Eleven have produced sakura-flavored drinks, snacks and merchandise. Needless to say, the season is hugely popular for both individuals and companies all around Japan.
As expected, such a culturally-significant and beautiful season attracted the attention of people around the world and as a result, Japan became a popular tourist destination in mid-March and early April.
What started as a cultural and spiritual tradition has turned into a world-wide phenomena, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a "tourist trap" (a phrase that I have issues with and will discuss in a future post).
Most tourists and photographers travel to Japan for the aesthetic of the cherry blossom trees and do not appreciate it in the same way that the Japanese people do, but that doesn't make it "wrong." In fact, I didn't know any of the history behind the season before I went to Japan either but that doesn't mean that I didn't know how to appreciate the spectacular beauty of it.
Do I think that cherry blossom season in Japan is a "tourist trap" or is overrated? Not in the slightest. It's true that it's highly commercialized and that hotel prices will most likely be inflated but that doesn't mean you shouldn't experience this miraculous season at least once.
If you do choose to travel to Japan to witness this spectacle, I just have a few words of advice to share with you:
- If you decide to have a hanami of your own, please respect the nature. Do not pick the blossoms or branches or damage the trees in any way. Also, respect the parks and clean up all of your picnic trash; the Japanese people will not be too happy to share their traditions with foreigners if we leave pollution and damage in our wake.
- Respect the Japanese people and their traditions. Japanese people tend to be much more reserved than many foreigners and this time of year is very significant to them. If you decide to join them, please be mindful of others and don't be rowdy or disrespectful while in Japan.
- Lastly, when you're in the presence of those fleetingly beautiful trees, try to remember the significance behind the tradition of hanami and to truly be in the moment. Of course you'll want to take pictures to capture the special memory, and that's okay. But after that, try putting your phone and camera away and living in the present. Take a moment to lay on the grass and just "be." Watch the branches rustle in the breeze and take in the delicate, sweet scent of the blossoms as they flutter to the ground.
Even if you're not Buddhist or Japanese, you can take away important lessons from their customs. Remember to slow down sometimes and reflect on the precious and fleeting nature of life.
That is what cherry blossom season is all about.
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