Cover photo

Why Are We Fascinated by Sakura?

I wish to die in spring,
beneath the cherry blossoms
while the springtime moon is full.

Saigyo

This is was and still is a famous death poem by Saigyo (1118-1190), one of Japan's most esteemed tanka poets. Saigyo, before becoming a celebrated poet, was a warrior and nobleman who chose the path of a Buddhist monk at the age of twenty-nine. Saigyo's final poem evokes the serene beauty of spring's second lunar month, a time when cherry blossoms unfurl their splendor, coinciding with the memorial services for the Buddha's passing.

Opening this newsletter with Saigyo's poem, I must confess, leaves me with a mixture of sadness and awe. The tranquility with which he expresses a desire to end his days beneath the cherry blossoms is both beautiful and deeply moving. This connection with death is found on samurai's mentality as well. In the samurai culture, the concept of maintaining dignity and purity at the brink of death gained significant prominence. It was believed that a samurai should depart this world with the same elegance and tranquility as cherry blossoms gently falling to the ground.

It wasn't until my arrival in Japan that I fully grasped the enchantment of the sakura 桜, or cherry blossoms, as they're known here. Initially, I imagined trees laden with ripe cherries, ready to be picked. Instead, I discovered something better: the exquisite beauty of the cherry blossom. Cherished since ancient times, these blossoms feature prominently in Japanese folklore and songs, embodying the transient nature of life.

Photo Credit: https://jw-webmagazine.com/different-types-of-cherry-blossoms-in-japan/

In this issue, I aim to delve into how cherry blossoms are revered in Japanese culture and the ways in which this admiration has been handed down through generations.

Origin

The cherry tree, or 'Sakura,' holds a special place in Japan's cultural and natural landscape, celebrated widely as a herald of spring. Cherries have been cherished by the Japanese people since ancient times, with their beauty lauded in the Manyoshu, an anthology of poetry from the 7th and 8th centuries. Beyond literature, wild cherries have featured prominently in historical documents, plays, art, and festivals, weaving themselves into the fabric of Japanese culture. This enduring appreciation underscores the cherry tree's significant role in fostering a deep connection between humans and nature in Japan.

He Zongyu, the chairman of the China Cherry Blossom Industry Association, stated at a press conference in Guangzhou in late March that "The true origin of cherry blossoms is China." He supported his claim with evidence from specialized books, arguing that neither Japan nor South Korea have grounds to claim the origins of cherry blossoms. He cited the "Sakura Taikan," a detailed book on cherry blossoms published in Japan in 1975, which mentions that cherry blossoms initially came from China, and that the variety found in Japan was introduced from the Himalayas in China during the Tang Dynasty.

The concept of cherry blossom viewing has a long history, traced back to the early Heian period. The first documented cherry blossom viewing event was held by Emperor Saga on March 28, 812, at Shinsen-en, a temple in Kyoto. Following this event, cherry blossom viewing became a favored activity among aristocrats. From 831, it was established as an annual spring event by the Emperor at the imperial court, a tradition depicted in Chapter 8 of "The Tale of Genji," titled "Hana no En," written during the mid-Heian period.

Nowadays there are researches going on to find and trace the DNA of sakura trees. Mr. Shirasawa led a detailed study of 46 Somei-Yoshino cherry trees from across Japan, analyzing their entire DNA, which contains about 700 million base pairs. This intricate process, demanding considerable time and technological resources, involved identifying tiny variations in the DNA sequences—a task likened to finding a grain of sand in a dune. Therefore, there is still a lot of work to do to find the genome of it.

We appreciate the sakura not only for its beauty but also for its delicate white and pink flowers. So have you ever wondered why is pink?

Where pink color comes from?

The vibrant hues of cherry blossom flowers are primarily due to a pigment known as anthocyanin. This compound, composed of anthocyanidin pigment and sugar, contributes to the range of red to blue colors observed in many plant flowers. The same anthocyanin that causes leaves to turn red in autumn and gives red cherries their color is also responsible for the coloration in cherry blossoms.

Cyanidin 3-glucoside, a type of anthocyanin, is the predominant pigment found in cherry blossoms. These flowers can vary in color from white to pink, depending on the species, and this variation in color is determined by their genetic makeup. Interestingly, the color intensity of cherry blossoms is more significantly affected by temperature than by soil conditions. Cooler temperatures inhibit the decomposition of anthocyanin within the flowers, resulting in a delayed bloom time but a more vivid pink shade.

Japan is home to 10 wild cherry blossom species, with the Yama-zakura, Edohigan, and Oshima-zakura being the most celebrated for their beauty, representing the quintessence of wild varieties.

Edohigan Type, photo credit: https://jw-webmagazine.com/different-types-of-cherry-blossoms-in-japan/

Oshima Zakura Type, photo credit: https://jw-webmagazine.com/different-types-of-cherry-blossoms-in-japan/

Yamazakura type, phot credit; https://jw-webmagazine.com/different-types-of-cherry-blossoms-in-japan/

Globally, there are about fifty to sixty cherry species, mainly found in the northern hemisphere's temperate regions, especially the cool temperate zone. Interestingly, North America hosts only two species, while Europe has three to four. The bulk of cherry species thrive in East Asia, with China alone boasting around thirty species. This makes cherries emblematic of East Asian flora in the eyes of Europeans and North Americans.

Abroad, "cherry" typically refers to the sweet cherry grown for its fruit. In contrast, in China and other regions, cherries as ornamental plants are less common. Hence, in English, "cherry" usually means the fruit-bearing tree, whereas ornamental varieties are known as 'flowering cherry' or similar names.

Over time, as appreciation for wild cherry blossoms grew, there was an increasing desire for cultivars that not only looked more stunning but were also easier to grow. This led to the development of various cherry blossom cultivars.

The 'Pendula' (weeping cherry) is the oldest cherry blossom cultivar, dating back to the 10th-11th century. Remarkably, ancient 'Pendula' trees, possibly over a thousand years old, are still found at tourist sites nationwide, showcasing Japan's long-standing horticultural heritage.

From the 13th century, crossbreeding of the Oshima-zakura and Yama-zakura led to a surge in eye-catching cultivars. Initially, cherry blossoms adorned only the gardens of the elite, with the general public admiring them from a distance. By the 17th century, however, spaces were being specifically designed for planting and enjoying cherry blossoms, akin to today's hanami (flower viewing) practice.

Hanami-Sakura Viewing

Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, has roots in the Heian period but became particularly prominent by the late 19th century. Previously, seasonal traditions dominated, but cherry blossom viewing emerged as a distinct activity. The Edo period saw the rise of communal cherry blossom outings, laying the foundation for modern hanami. The introduction of 'Somei-yoshino' in the mid-19th century, a rapidly growing variety, and the expansion of transportation networks further facilitated this tradition, making hanami a widespread and beloved practice from the late 19th century onwards.

Consider the profound words of Ikkyu (1394-1481), a Zen Buddhist monk and poet, who observed: "Break open a cherry tree and there are no flowers; but the spring breeze brings forth myriad blossoms." This highlights one of the key reasons cherry blossoms captivate so many: their symbolic essence.

Cherry blossoms burst into bloom simultaneously, cloaking the trees in a cloud-like mist, only to vanish as swiftly as they appeared.

This fleeting beauty embodies the concept of ephemerality, mirroring life's transient nature. It resonates deeply with the Buddhist notion prevalent in Japanese culture, "mono no aware," which contemplates the poignant beauty of life's impermanence.


References:

  1. "Death Poems" Available at: https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/Death.pdf

  2. Sakura Knowledge Base : https://www.sakuranokai.or.jp/chishiki/

  3. Discovery Japan News: https://www.discoveryjapan.jp/news/z6f9halm8ot/

  4. Ohana Club: Cherry Blossom Cultivars [online]. Available at: https://www.ohanaclub.jp/shukatsu/other/other_other/5418/

  5. NHK Special Feature on Somei-Yoshino Cherry Blossoms : https://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/special/sci_cul/2022/04/special/someiyoshino/

  6. Sankei News Article on Cherry Blossoms : https://www.sankei.com/article/20150416-NLBBMPDSPFLZHC23AJVVGVUB64/

  7. Highlighting Japan - Cherry Blossoms: https://www.govonline.go.jp/eng/publicity/book/hlj/html/202404/202404_00_en.html

  8. Tandfonline Research on Cherry Blossoms: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/26395916.2022.2065359

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