How Cherry Blossoms Became Japan’s Bittersweet Ideology

Mono no aware, or the pathos of things, is the Japanese philosophy on impertinence and ephemerality often depicted through springtime’s evanescent cherry blossoms.

In 2014, I wrote Founder’s Note: NOW Is The Moment where I described viewing cherry blossoms in Kyoto as such, “In Japan, sakura symbolizes the ephemeral nature of life. When the wind blows, millions of sakura petals fall to the ground in bursts of pink rain. A transcendence of tender blossoms signifies fleeting beauty and rapid demise. Though extraordinarily beautiful, sakura in Japan, has often been affiliated with mortality.” 

2020 has been an interesting year so far, a global pandemic has forced us to reflect upon the concept of time and how we best reap from it. Many regard stay-at-home restrictions as being held captive inside our homes, for others the dream of being captivated by nature’s marvelous beauty seems so close yet inconceivably far away. Every spring, Japan celebrates cherry blossoms in the most dynamic and traditional manner. If we can’t witness hanami in person this year, we should at least dream about it.

Cherry Blossoms
Kyoto, Japan. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

Long-standing tradition

Since the 8th century, Emperor Saga’s beloved tradition, hanami 花見 – or flower viewing – has been attracting travelers around the world. The Emperor loved hosting picnics in the city, surrounded by flourishing ume trees – popular at the time before sakura became a trending breed during Heian period (794–1185.) Back then, the custom solely belonged to the Imperial Court elites while aristocrats composed poems about sakura. It was believed these cherry blossoms were gods of the mountain and rice fields, thus farmers made offerings to cherry trees every spring, praying for a bountiful harvest and the perfect time to sow rice paddies. Once hanami was woven into the lives of common folks during the Edo era (1603 – 1867), flower viewing morphed into its present-day style: sitting under cherry blossoms with drinks and cakes.

Over the centuries, hanami metamorphosed into the mark of a new season celebrated by picnics, kimono and exquisitely packaged desserts. TV shows devote numerous segments to cherry blossom reports, catering to locals glued to their television sets. Setting the mood well in advance, shops begin to stock shelves with sakura-themed products, anything from tableware to edibles. Sakuramochi (cherry blossom rice cake), sakura manju (steamed dessert with bean paste wrapped in white or pink flour dough) and sakura yokan (cherry blossom bean jelly) are just a few essential sweets to pack inside picnic baskets along with bottles of sake. Since sake is mainly made from rice, the braided relationship between hanami and sake goes back to the ancient days of rice farming.

Cherry Blossoms
Kyoto, Japan. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

Mono no aware

Sakura’s fleeting allure depicts a preeminent Japanese philosophy: mono no aware 物の哀れ (the pathos of things) – the idea that nothing in the world is permanent, everything always passes. Somber yet poetic, mono no aware is a mindset of transience deeply ingrained within Japanese culture from big picture notions to mundane routines of everyday life. The doctrine of life’s impermanence is also extremely Buddhist, mono no aware’s spiritual breakdown reminds us that we should gracefully detach ourselves like sakura petals briskly diminishing to the ground.

Falling blossoms, seasons passing, changes of the moon, even the loss of lovers or friends all pertain to mono no aware within Japanese art and literature. Most notably in The Tale of Genji, the Japanese classic novel of the Heian period written by Murasaki Shikibu. The word aware appears 1,000 times throughout the novel, practically once on every page. Cherry blossoms as a symbol of ephemeral joy resurfaces throughout this literary tale, as an example of bittersweet impertinence:

“Yes, the cherry trees put this truth very plainly: none of the glory of blossoms and autumn leaves lasts long in this fleeting world.” (page 897)

Since sakura tends to bloom during a brief two-week period, its evanescence is deeply treasured and understood. It motivates most Japanese to place value on objects, people and experiences that are truly important since life and death can occur in a blink of an eye.

Cherry Blossoms
Kyoto, Japan. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

Climate change

According to traditional Japanese calendar, the first day of spring, or risshun 立春, officially begins on February 4. Habitually, hanami is feted from March throughout April. Due to climate change in recent years, however, blossoms are confused by  extreme weather changes therefore begin to bloom as far back as six months prior to normal season.

Flowers bloom due to an annual pause during spring, from trees that stop releasing a hormone which prevents buds from blooming through most days of the year. The more frequently that Japan experiences typhoons which causes trees to lose a large number of leaves, the less likely flowers can bloom due to the lack of hormone released from trees. Scientists also suggest recent typhoons, including Typhoon Jebi in 2018, are often followed by warmer weather that tricks cherry blossoms to bloom off-season.

Cherry Blossoms
Kyoto, Japan. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

Technological tracking

Although this has made trip plannings quite difficult for international travelers hoping to admire hanami, Sakura Navi app tracks the progress of cherry blossoms in 1000+ spots throughout Japan. Created by a private forecast agency, Japan Meteorological Corporation (JMC), the app provides precise details from early budding to full bloom via animated graphics.

Tracking is imperative since blossoms last for merely two weeks, typically from the southern tropical island of Okinawa moving northward to the island of Hokkaido where ski resorts and lavender fields also welcome travelers during other seasons. It’s not an exaggeration to say that hanami is deeply embedded within Japanese culture, newspapers diligently trail sakura movements throughout the country, they take over local conversations, weekend activities and social calendars.

Cherry Blossoms
Kyoto, Japan. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

Diplomatic gesture

A delightful stroll in Washington D.C. during springtime is also a charming wonderment as thousands of cherry blossoms drape the U.S. capital in shades of pink. In 1912, Tokyo’s Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted America 3,000 sakura to spotlight a growing friendship between the two nations. But the history behind D.C.’s cherry blossoms began years prior to Ozaki’s grand gesture.

According to National Park Service, the first female board member of the National Geographic Society, Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, asked for cherry trees to be planted along the Potomac River after her first trip to Japan in 1885. When her request to the U.S. Army superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds went unnoticed, she took it upon herself to raise funds to purchase cherry trees as a donation to the city. In 1909, Scidmore wrote a letter to First Lady Helen Herron Taft, who quickly came on board with an action plan. A few days later, Japanese chemist, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, donated 2,000 cherry trees during a visit to D.C. Once the trees arrived, Department of Agriculture found them to be infested and ordered them to be destroyed. In 1912, Japan offered a second donation of 3,020 cherry trees that were planted along Tidal Basin. 53 years later, Japan donated an additional 3,800 trees to Lady Bird Johnson who arranged for the trees to be planted near the Washington Monument.

Since 1927, D.C. has been hosting annual Cherry Blossom Festivals that typically attract 1.5 million visitors. When it comes to experiencing cherry blossoms and mono no aware, there’s a vast cultural difference between Japanese and Americans. Japanese-style hanami requires locals to settle in, indulge in full-fledged picnics with fried chicken, rice balls and alcoholic drinks. Some will camp overnight to reserve the perfect spot in the shade for their colleagues. On the other hand, Americans tend to walk along the paths near Lincoln, Jefferson and Martin Luther King Memorials. Looking up, snapping photos from left to right, admiring cherry blossoms as if time may run out before daylight diminishes, before capturing the very last tree. It seems the American version of mono no aware is akin to a moveable feast where the memory of splendid sakura drifts with a mobile traveler, once the experience has been acquired, he or she has gone away.

I still remember spending a week in Kyoto five years ago, catching sakura petals through gusts of wind that wrapped Philosopher’s Path in cloudbursts of pastel. Each time the wind stopped for a fading minute, I’d opened the palm of my hand and count the number of petals I was grasping onto. Before I could finish, another windy flurry would pick up and sweep my silky petals away. They were light as air, flowing into the unknown. At least I got to catch a few for an everlasting memory, even if they did end up getting away.

Cherry Blossoms
Kyoto, Japan. PHOTO WENDY HUNG

Wendy Hung

CEO, FOUNDER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

As the founder of Jetset Times, Wendy is an avid traveler and fluent in five languages. When she's not traveling, Wendy calls Paris and Taipei home. Her favorite countries so far from her travels have been: Bhutan, Iran, and Russia because they were all so different! St. Bart's was pretty amazing too (wink)!

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