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Something Sakura: The history of the iconic Japanese cherry blossom.

One thing that instantly comes to mind when we think of Japan is the iconic sakura flower, or as it is more commonly known, the cherry blossom. The sakura flower can be found on a few trees of the prunus genus, but is most recognisable in its form on the Japanese cherry blossom. Present in many countries other than Japan, sakura has made its home in plenty of locations in the Northern Hemisphere with temperate climates. Nepal, India, Taiwan, Korea and China are just some of the other countries that are host to this beautiful and symbolic piece of nature. Despite its Western name, the fruit produced by the sakura varieties that have been cultivated for ornamental use is small and unpalatable; edible cherries are generally cultivated from other sakura-related plant species. The beautiful nature of the cherry blossom is appreciated far more for its symbolism and national significance. Let’s take a look at why the cherry blossom is such an embedded part of Japanese culture and how it is celebrated.

Symbolism of the Sakura

In Japan, the symbolism surrounding cherry blossom often refers to thoughts on human life with the glorious yet short-lived nature of the season acting as a reminder of our mortality. Similarly, cherry blossom symbolism is also linked to clouds due to the way that the flowers bloom in groups, again acting as a metaphor for the short nature of life. This sort of symbolism is often associated with Buddhist influences and the concept of ‘mono no aware’, meaning ‘the pathos of things’ that dates back to the 18th century.

Cherry Blossom and Rebirth

The cherry blossom is not only seen as a symbol of life and death but as a symbol of renewal. With the blossom creating dramatic and inspiring scenes during the Spring season, it’s no wonder that cherry blossom is so closely associated with this time of renewal and optimism where the Japanese calendar year begins, children return to school and workers start their new jobs.
‘Hanami’ is an incredibly popular Japanese tradition in which friends and family gather under a beautiful blooming sakura tree to celebrate the season. It is common for those who sit beneath the sakura in bloom to eat lunch and drink sake as a form of cheerful celebration. This custom dates back to the Nara period of Japanese history where the custom was limited to only the most elite of the Imperial Court, however, this tradition soon caught on and began to spread to samurai society. By the Edo period, gathering under the sakura was common amongst all members of society. As a way of encouraging more people to sit beneath the cherry blossom, Tokugawa Yoshimune, the ruler of Japan during the 1700s, planted areas filled with sakura trees, ready to be enjoyed and admired.

Celebration of the Cherry Blossom

Another traditional custom in Japan is the tracking of the ‘sakura zensen’, the cherry blossom front. Every year, both the Japanese Meteorological Agency and the public follow the sakura cherry blossom as it blooms northward through the country. The blossoming of the delicate sakura flowers begins in January in the southernmost prefecture of Japan, Okinawa, it then blooms in swathes across the nation before reaching Kyoto and Tokyo during the end of March. The cherry blossom then continues to make its annual appearance in areas of Japan with higher altitudes to finally arrive in Hokkaido after a few weeks. The people of Japan keep a close eye on the forecasts of the sakura, turning out in large groups at a number of parks, shrines and temples, accompanied by family and friends to watch the pretty petals dance in these traditional flower-viewing parties. This tradition celebrates the true beauty of the sakura and makes for the perfect view to enjoy whilst relaxing with those closest to you.
The celebration of the captivating colour and natural beauty of the sakura is an ancient Japanese tradition that is still upheld in modern Japan today. Rich in symbolism in Japanese culture, the influences of sakura can be found all over. From Japanese art and anime to clothing styles and stationery, this delicate flower is a renowned national flower and a true cultural icon of Japan.
If you’re looking to find something that depicts the beautiful spring season and the stunning sakura flower, browse our unique collection at Atelier Japan. Here you’ll discover a range of cherry blossom inspired cutlery stands, jewellery, pottery and fans that are perfect for celebrating the natural beauty and history of the sakura.

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Sakura: Japan’s Gorgeous Cherry-Blossom

Sakura season, usually arriving in March or April across Japan’s different regions, is probably the most beautiful time of year to visit Japan and is certainly the most popular amongst tourists. With the cherry-pink colour perfectly offsetting the clear pastel-blue Japanese skies, Sakura (cherry-blossom) trees are a stunning sight to behold. Sakura viewing parties are a staple event held at this time of year and represent the aesthetic Japan is known to strive for. Sakura iconically characterises spring in Japan, and is even used as an ice cream flavour or sprinkled on lattes; it is true to say that a pink obsession takes over the country in this period, and not just in Japan. Big global names in sales have also picked up on the craze, with Starbucks releasing a Sakura frappuccino last spring.

Hanami: The Ancient Tradition of Flower Viewing

Hanami is the name given to the ongoing and ancient tradition of flower viewing, with the term deriving from the Japanese word for flower, hana.
Originally, this ceremony centred on plum blossoms but by the Heian era (794 – 1185) it transitioned to exclusively focus on Sakura. This blossom only blooms for a very short time (usually a week) betweenMarch and May, most commonly in very early April in Kyoto, and is seen to metaphorically represent the fleeting nature of life. Historically, the period in which the cherry-blossom bloomed was indicative of divining that year’s harvest and signalled the commencing of the rice-planting season. When the Sakura trees come to fruition and the blossoms start to fall, swirling around in the wind, this is seen as the ultimate time to host viewing parties as this sight is considered particularly beautiful to behold. Sakura blossoms and their movement are widely seen to incorporate the Japanese ideology of wabi-sabi (the aesthetic of imperfection and transience).

Sakura and Ancient Kyoto

Japan has the longest lasting monarchy of any nation and has a fascinating history. The ancient and imperial eras in Japan are shrouded in mystery and allure and are highly interesting, particularly to foreigners, as this history is so unique anddistinctive. From the ancient myths and stories of samurai and the beautiful art depicting the seemingly transient lives of ancient imperial courts, it is clear to see why many have an interest in studying ancient Japan and why it still holds a special place in contemporary Japanese society.

Hanami was an essential part of court life, with Emperor Saga of the Heian period holding parties with feasting and sake consumption beneath the flowering blossoms in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Kyoto was in fact originally the imperial capital of Japan for more than one thousand years, before this moved to Edo (now Tokyo) in the nineteenth century. From these gatherings, a great deal of poetry was written praising the cherry-blossom, again often metaphorically, linking Sakura to the blooming of life. Although starting as exclusive to the Imperial Court and other elite, hanami was soon adopted by samurai society and the common people by the Edo period (1603-1868).
Sakura and Modern Kyoto

Kyoto is still the most popular place to host hanami. Every year during Sakura season, the ancient city is flooded with tourists hoping to get the best view of the famed phenomenon, and experience the rich culture Kyoto has to offer. It is a time of great celebration with lively parties and entertainment including dancing specific to hanami, such as Miyako Odori (literally translating to ‘capital city dances’ but most commonly known in English as cherry blossom dancing). At these gatherings, there is no shortage of food and drink; sake is particularly popular and is often be consumed warm, and the parks are flooded with people having picnics, enjoying the season with friends. Geisha wear traditional kimono with Sakura design and dance the Miyako Odori to celebrate the season.

Sakura in Design at Atelier Japan

Holding a special association with Japan, Sakura as a depiction is perhaps the most popular and aesthetically pleasing design used in art and other mediums, and is highly admired worldwide. Drawn or painted with great skill, Sakura is a beautiful picture to have in your home. At Atelier Japan, many of our ornaments and pottery are exquisitely designed with unique and stunningly beautiful illustrations of Sakura, such as our Shinheiji vase showing a kimono clad woman under a Sakura tree.