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The Beauty of the Cherry Blossom

By: Jena Maddalino

Date Posted: 2000-05-05

To the Japanese, the perfect petal blossoms of the cherry tree, "sakura", are truly sacred. As the national flower of Japan, it is said that the cherry blossom symbolizes the character of the people as well as their love of all things natural. To many westerners, the cherry tree is seen only as a delicious fruit bearing plant. The cherry trees of Japan do not bear edible fruit. In fact, cherries are quite an expensive purchase! Even in the United States, where Japanese Cherry Trees can be viewed every spring, the spirit that they evoke here in Japan is often mysterious.

I recall my parents telling me of the history of the cherry trees in Washington D.C. as we strolled along the Tidal Basin of the Potomac River. Every year, we would make the short trip from the Virginia Suburb we lived in to see the delicate flowers of soft pink and white. Families and couples gathered at the bottoms of the magnificent trees to enjoy the inspiring sight as well as the intoxicating scent that the blossoms left in the air.

The trees were a gift from Japan, planted on March 27th, 1912, by the First Lady Taft and the wife of the Japanese Ambassador, Chinda. The two women planted two Yoshino cherry trees on the bank of the Tidal Basin in a small ceremony close to what is now Independence Avenue. This ceremony marked the first of the annual Cherry Blossom Festivals in Washington, which has evolved into a magnificent event for thousands of people.

For more than one thousand years, the tender blossoms have been loved by the people of Japan. The very word "sakura" stems from the word "sakuya", which means blooming. Named after the Princess Kono-han-sakuya-Hime (tree-flower-blooming-princess), who according to legend dropped from heaven onto a cherry tree, this love is long-rooted in history.

The importance of the sakura is depicted in poetry and paintings as well as decorative items such as laquerware and kimono. Even in the Japanese language the word "hana", which means flower, usually refers to the cherry blossom solely, as does the word "hanami" (flower viewing), which is used only for the cherry blossom.

The cherry blossom festivities in Japan are equally as important. As spring approaches, it is customary for the people to guess when the trees will blossom. The forty-day sakura zensen, or cherry blossom front, extends from Kyushu to Hokkaido, and the sakura matsuri is a time to enjoy the rare beauty with friends, family and even co-workers. Many shops and companies close early to enjoy a picnic next to a tree lined river or mountainside (which usually turns into an all night party). Of course, there are many different types of sakura with blossoms of varying shades, from hot pink to white. The first blossoms can be seen in Okinawa at the end of January - the last are seen in Hokkaido in early May.

The petal blossoms of the sakura are also used in ceremonial events such as weddings. The blossoms are preserved in salt and made into a drink called akurayu, which is served as a prayer for a happy marriage. During the Girl's Day Festival in March, sakura mochi (a dumpling with sweet beans wrapped in a pickled cherry tree leaf) is eaten as well.

For those interested in learning more about Japanese culture, experiencing the Cherry Blossom festival is recommended. The best places to view the blossoms are in parks or alongside the many rivers in Japan. In Okinawa, Nago houses a beautiful array of trees with hot pink petals. In Kyoto and Osaka, the soft pink to white flowers bloom towards the end of March or in early April. Many cities in mainland Japan post signs at train stations listing the dates and the extent to which the trees will blossom.

Wherever cherry blossoms are viewed, rest assured that the sight will be awe inspiring as one can almost envision the Princess Kono-hana-sakuya-Hime gracefully falling from the heavens to take the form of an exquisite cherry tree.

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