Every spring, beginning in Okinawa and spreading north along the Japanese archipelago, all segments of Japanese society keep an eye on the sakura (cherry blossom) front as it envelopes the land in pink petals for a few weeks.
From March to early May, maps of Japan covered with digital sakura blossoms fill the national television news, while people scour websites to find the best hanami (literally, “flower viewing”) spots. Many claim Nara prefecture’s Mt. Yoshino as the nation’s top spot. An iSakura app even allows users to hone in on the best hanami sites via iPhone GPS.
Sakura have bloomed a bit early this spring, and most of the festivities have already been held in Tokyo and parts of southern Japan, but a large swath of Japan is still waiting for the appearance of the nation’s beloved flower.
Hanami has been a tradition for centuries, and at its earliest stems from the Chinese Tang Dynasty, which had a deep appreciation for flowers and influenced Japanese culture deeply during the Nara Period (710-794). It was during this time when umemi took root in Japan, after which sakura (cherry blossoms) came to the fore during the Heian Period (794-1185).
The term “hanami” itself became synonymous with sakura viewing after the word was used as such in The Tale of Genji, written in the early 11th century by Lady Murasaki Shikibu and often considered the world’s first novel.
Throughout their long history of association, sakura have taken on a specific significance in Japanese culture. They were once used to divine the year’s harvest, as well as mark the beginning of rice planting season. According to Shinto, cherry trees were believed to house kami (gods) and were treated with reverence—often including offerings of sake.
From these roots grew the tradition of throwing parties under the cherry trees, which was solidified by Emperor Saga of the Heian Period in Kyoto’s imperial court. The pink petals became the focus of poets who praised their beautiful, yet ephemeral nature. In turn, Japanese came to view them as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life itself.
It was not until the Edo period (after the capital had shifted to Tokyo, then called Edo) that the custom spread throughout all levels of Japanese society—from the imperial court to the samurai it trickled down to commoners.
By the time hanami reached that point, it had become more or less what it is today: a good excuse to sprawl out one of the ubiquitous blue tarps seen in parks across Japan at this time of year to eat, drink and forget their cares for a fleeting moment.
For those who cannot partake of the festivities in person this year, Google is sharing the wealth with Street View guide to Japan: Sakura Edition, which offers 360-degree panoramic views of sakura in bloom across Japan. Viewers can also learn the number of trees, their location and even brief histories of the areas shown all from the comfort of home.