It’s that time of year again! Predictions for the first and full bloom of the beautiful cherry blossoms, more affectionately known as “sakura” in Japan, have been floating around for a while since the beginning of the year. Given that it has been a comparatively warm year, the blossoms are expected to emerge earlier than in previous years.
As we look forward to canopies of pink above our heads from the end of March through May across Japan, have you ever wondered if these flowers bear a deeper significance to the Japanese people beyond their ethereal beauty and our delightful hanami experience?
In Japanese culture, the sakura is associated with reproduction and new life. This belief goes as far back as in ancient times, when sakura trees were regarded as sacred.
People believed that the sakura carried the soul of the Mountain God down to the human villages below. Every spring, the God would travel down to the fields below riding on the falling petals of cherry blossoms and transform into a deity of the rice paddies, which is an important crop in Japan, even today. He would bring blessings of productivity and prosperity, while warding off calamities, so that rice farmers could enjoy a bountiful harvest.
For this reason, many Japanese would go into the mountains during springtime to worship the trees, until some of them began to transplant sakura trees from the mountains to their villages. This was when hanami—cherry blossom viewings—first began as religious rituals, but now enjoyed by all.
Where to go for “spiritual sakura” appreciation
For some sakura-related spiritual immersion, head out to Miyajima. The island is accessible via Hiroshima on a 30-minute train ride to Miyajimaguchi Station. From here, take the ferry, which runs frequently, for 10 minutes. The entire trip can be fully covered by JR Pass if you have one.
For most tourists, the main draw of this island are the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the red floating Torii gate nearby—an amazing sight that makes it one of the Three Views of Japan selected in 1643.
Yet, Miyajima has so much to offer. After the Shrine and the Torii, spend a leisurely morning meandering through the town—to the 5-story Pagoda and the adjacent park with a view over the colourful rooftops of the town’s houses. With the sakura in full bloom, it will be a delightful lunch break here in the park where it’s not packed with tourists.
Mount Misen is another highlight of a trip to Miyajima. One can choose to climb or take the ropeway up to enjoy a nice view on clear days. The mountain has 3 hiking trails – Momijidani Trail, Daisho-in Trail and Omoto Trail.
Momijidani Trail is the steepest route albeit the shortest to the summit. It takes you through some dense untouched forests, which feel like enchanted forests from the films of Princess Mononoke or Totoro. Fog caused by the light drizzle adds to the dreaminess, a hint of what one would encounter at the top.
The mist will prevent you from getting the view that people would see on clear days, but wild deer scattering at the top of the mountain with sakura trees as the backdrop is a scene right out of a Hayao Miyazaki film.
You can descend Mount Misen via the Daisho-in Trail, which is a lot easier but also less pretty until you come to Daisho-in. This temple is just as awe-inspiring as Itsukushima, so if you’re in Miyajima just for its temples, Torii and pagoda, remember to work Daisho-in into your itinerary.
Most of Japan’s religious landscape is characterised by Zen Buddhism that advocates living in the present, by recognizing the impermanence of existence. This philosophy resonated with Japan’s warrior mentality—the practice was quickly adopted by the aristocrats and spread to the lower ranks.
The association of life with the beautiful but short-lived sakurawas also inevitable, as the warrior lived with the consciousness that his life could be struck down abruptly, just like the sakura could fall in a windstorm.
Naturally, the sakura became the emblem of kamikaze pilots—a “special attack squadron” of suicide bombers who crash-dived their Zero fighter planes into enemy sites—in World War II. Each petal of the sakura is believed to represent a fallen soldier.
While it could be romantic standing in a hanafubuki (sakura blizzard), especially with a loved one, carry in your heart these original sentiments surrounding the sakura that were much darker in the past, and still bittersweet for many Japanese people today.
Where to go for “sakura warrior” appreciation?
Travel to the far south of Japan to visit this museum in Chiran, a small town in Kagoshima Prefecture (Kyushu), about 35 km or an hour’s drive from city central.
An airfield was set up outside Chiran during World War II. Toward the end of the war, as Japan was losing fast in the Pacific, Chiran became the base of kamikaze pilots. Today, the town hosts a controversial, thought-provoking museum in honor of these pilots. Bring an open mind and some tissues, as we gain deeper insights into the realities of war from the Japanese perspective.
The museum has a comprehensive collection of artefacts related to the lives and deaths of 1,036 kamikaze pilots, organized chronologically according to their times of death. They include uniforms, weapons, hachimaki headbands, water bottles, family records, farewell letters and Hinomaru flags (flag of Japan) inscribed with words of encouragement from family and friends.
In predominantly Buddhist Japan, meat-eating was much frowned upon in ancient times. To circumvent societal pressure, and perhaps personal conscience as well, the Japanese used plant names to represent some of their favorite meats—butan(peony) was the euphemism for pork, momiji (Japanese maple) was venison, and sakura was horse meat.
Sakura niku is inspired by the colour of freshly-cut horse meat, which greatly resembles pink cherry blossoms. Also like how fast the sakura withers, horse meat oxidizes quickly once exposed to the air and turns an unappetizing brownish red color. This creates some sense of urgency in people to quickly enjoy the meat while it is still pretty.
Horse meat can be consumed as sashimi, nabe (hot pot), sushi or with natto (fermented beans). There are a few places in Japan that are particularly famous for horse meat. One is Kumamoto in Kyushu, where the “sakura natto”—made of horse tartar mixed with natto and topped with an egg—was born.
Nagano prefecture is also famous for various horse meat cuisine. It is consumed as a regular meat in people’s daily diet, so much so that the locals attribute their longevity to the high intake of horse meat. Men in Nagano have enjoyed the longest lifespan in Japan since 1990, while its women took over the top spot in 2013.
Where to go for sakura appreciation in Nagano?
A hirajiro—a castle built on the plains instead of on mountain tops—Matsumoto Castle is easily accessible by a 15-minute walk from Matsumoto Station in Nagano Prefecture. The walk through town is very pleasant, too—try to spot a good place for some Sakura Niku!
Matsumoto Castle is one of the most complete of Japan’s original castles.
The well-preserved wooden interiors are also pretty rare, considering many old castles have undergone refurbishment and rebuilt with ferro-concrete over the years.
In Japan, the castles are typically black or white, with Matsumoto Castle being the “black” castle, as opposed to Himeji Castle, the “white” castle. The reason for keeping the castles in monotone is likely purely aesthetic. Yet, it is romantic to ponder upon the legends and history of these magnificent buildings, especially when walking in the gardens or along the moat in the midst of beautiful sakura trees in full bloom.
According to one theory, black castles were built by followers of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, whereas white was favored by the supporters of Tokugawa Ieyasu. They are two of Japan’s iconic warlords who were largely responsible for destroying the kingdom’s castles. Only 12 original castles—built before the end of the Edo period (1868)—remain today, and Matsumoto Castle is one of them.
After gaining a deeper appreciation of the sakura, what do you think of the significance of cherry blossoms to the Japanese people?
Personally, I feel the transience of beauty and life represented by the sakura is a perfect representation of Japan. As I was traveling through many parts of this country, I couldn’t help wondering how the beautiful scenery around me could be completely destroyed in brief moments of earthquake, tsunami or typhoon.
The Japanese people have to live with this reality day-to-day, and be prepared for everything, including life itself, to be taken away from them anytime.
I feel the Japanese people’s appreciation for the ephemeral sakura has somehow influenced their attitude towards life and how they relate to people and the environment around them. Much like how the sakura comes and goes so quickly, many Japanese regard their meetings with another person as once-in-a-lifetime beautiful encounters, and therefore, they should leave these acquaintances with good memories of the short meeting.
So, the next time you see how earnestly the girl at the cashier counter wraps up your purchase, or how the stranger you’ve asked for directions offers to bring you to your destination, remember also the spirit of the ethereal and ephemeral sakura—the spirit of Japan.