For many spring time in Japan is a scene of blossoming cherry, plum and wisteria trees which start in the south and move gradually north. Tourists from around the world converge on the small islands of Japan in order to catch a glimpse of the fleeting cherry blossoms which only bloom for a short time before falling to the ground like snowflakes. During the last two weeks I was fortunate to catch sight of the cherry blossoms as I travelled through Japan.
However, the history of the cherry blossom dates back to as early as the Nara period (710-794 AD). In ancient Japan, the cherry blossom (sakura) holds great significance as it marked the beginning of the rice planting season and defined the year’s harvest.
The Japanese people believe sakura trees are spirits and so offerings of rice wine are made to them. This began the tradition of hanami of feasting, drinking and gathering and became one of Japan’s most honoured rituals. Hanami is believed to have started with the Emperor’s court, filtered down into the samurai classes and the people. Today, it is a societal tradition where the people hold hanami parties and picnics beneath the blossoming trees.
This year sakura began a little earlier due to the mild weather conditions. It is difficult to plan when the blossoms will appear, late March to early April are generally the best time to visit. During my visit, I saw the most sakura in Osaka, Hiroshima and Tokyo.
But what did not change was the sakura products that make an appearance in stores across Japan each spring. Just like the fleeting cherry blossoms, the sakura products are only on sale for a limited time also.
Take a walk through the stores and see products such as: sakura dumplings, Kit Kats, beer, crisps, teas, coffee and sakura chu-hai (sweet alcoholic drinks). And yes, even Starbucks produces their own version of a sakura flavoured latte!
Be warned, the popular attractions do get crowded as everyone is jostling for that perfect selfie position. However, if you want to view the sakura privately, look for venues off the main tourist strips. I found some beautiful cherry blossoms blooming in the side streets and locals’ backyards.