The arrival of the sakura, or cherry blossom, has long been a profound yet simple Japanese lesson about the nature of human existence. For centuries, poets have fired off reams of haiku comparing the brief but blazing lives of the flowers to those of our own – a tragically fragile beauty to be treasured and contemplated.
In Japan, spring sees the country gradually coated in a light pink shade, soft petals slowly clustering on their branches as if puffed through by some benevolent underground spirit. The sakura-zensen, or cherry blossom front, flushes like a floral wave that laps the country from south to north; this is followed ardently by the Japanese, who know that when the advancing flowers hit their locality, they’ll only have a week or so to enjoy the annual gift to its fullest. This desire is most commonly expressed in the centuries-old form of countless hanami parties – the word literally means “flower viewing” in Japanese – which take place in the rosy shade of the sakura-zensen throughout the entire duration of its course. The existential contemplation is often over in seconds, before the party’s real raison d’être: consumption. Female members of the group are expected to provide the food, and then, of course, there’s alcohol – hanami are often convenient ways for grievances to be aired in highly conservative Japan.
Hanami are typically friends-and-family affairs taking place in the most convenient location to the partygoers – often a park or river bank. Some of the most popular places are illuminated at night, and many are atmospherically decorated with red-and-white paper lanterns. Of course, the coming of the blossom can be enjoyed in any way you see fit; among the best places to go are Kiyomizu-tera, a gorgeous temple in Kyoto, Tokyo’s Ueno Park or the castles in Osaka or Himeji, all of which are lent a dreamlike air by the arrival of the blossom each spring. A hanami party may even be possible in your own country – hunt down some sake, roll up some rice balls and become one with the nearest flowering cherry tree.
Though the exact dates vary each year, the sakura usually blossoms in late March or early April.