Among the Japanese, there is a deep and unabashedly sentimental attachment to "Sakura", or cherry blossoms. Sakura embody a strong connection to the Japanese lifestyle that has been noted in literature for hundreds of years. They are seen as a metaphor for the transience of life—generally the trees bloom for about two weeks, and then lose the blossoms in a rapid flurry. Sakura used to bloom mainly in April, so they were associated with the beginning of spring and the start of the fiscal and the academic years; however, due to global warming, trees are blooming earlier, so sakura now has become a symbol of graduation from school as well.
As the flowers come into bloom, a wave of excitement seems to vibrate through the country. People pay close attention to the "sakura zensen", or "front line" news forecast of the cherry blossoms, which informs them when and where the trees will be blooming. Armed with that information, they can plan to view the blossoms at the optimal time, usually when the blossoms are at their peak.
Traditionally, "hanami" or cherry blossom viewing, is a time for friends, family and colleagues to get together during the day and have a picnic under the cherry trees while admiring the blossoms. Songs get sung, sake gets imbibed, special box lunches called "hanami bento" get devoured; all in all, it is as much fun as you can have despite the fact that the temperature might still hover near bone-chilling. Hanami has been deeply ingrained in the Japanese society and psyche since ancient times, and the pleasure that everyone gets from it exceeds any frost-bitten discomfort!
Recently hanami has taken a "dark" turn—"yozakura", or viewing sakura at night, has become a popular seasonal pastime. Many temples, parks, castle grounds, etc. illuminate their trees in the evening creating magnificent, fairytale-like scenes.
Aside from hanami bento, special foods eaten during this time include "sakura mochi", a delicate pink mochi filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf. The flavor combination of sweet and salty is absolutely delicious. There is also "sakura-yu", which is made by placing one or two pickled blossoms in hot water. The "tea" is salty and a bit sour, and evokes even more of the special mood of the season. "Hanami dango" is another type of sweet confection that has been a standard seasonal snack since long ago. It consists of three skewered dumplings made of rice flour, each one a different color (pink for sakura; white representing the last of the winter snows; green, a sign of the coming summer).
As the all-too-short sakura season nears its end, the blossoms disperse, often in a gorgeous storm of petals called "sakura fubuki" that looks like wind-driven snow (hence the word fubuki which translates to blizzard or snowstorm). Some consider this to be the most beautiful part of cherry blossom season—but it comes tinged with a hint of melancholy that such beauty won't be seen for another year.
In Japan, enjoying the cherry blossoms is part of the national pulse. The fleeting beauty resonates in the soul of the people with a sweet mixture of happiness and sorrow, but this is by no means limited to only the Japanese. Visitors to Japan are just as susceptible to the charms of sakura, and they are heartily welcomed to join in the festivities!
For more information about regions famous for cherry blossoms, visit here.
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