The cherry blossom is the flower of flowers to the Japanese people. It is a native flower, and the blossoms have been loved more than 10 centuries. The people love to see not only the single petal cherry blossoms in their prime and freshness, they also relish the beauty of falling snowy petals in the spring breeze. Of all flowers, the cherry blossoms appeal most to the aesthetic taste of the Japanese people. The Japanese people would never have been essentially so jubilant, cheerful, optimistic and youthful were it not for the beauty of the cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms have been the theme of songs and poems since time immemorial, and have played an important role in molding the Japanese character. So universal is their appeal to the moral and aesthetic taste of the race that they are constantly used as motifs on kimonos, lacquerware, pottery and other decorative items.

Beautiful as it is in bloom, the Japanese cherry tree does not yield fruit like other cherry trees. A critic once remarked that the Japanese cherry does not have to produce a market crop because it is a born aristocrat and its single mission is to be beautiful. But it does render a very useful service to the Japanese people.

The wood of the cherry tree is used for many purposes. It is from this wood that seals, wood blocks for producing color prints, checker boards, tables, trays, ornamental columns for alcoves and all sorts of ornaments and furniture are made. The bark is a deep brown hue and lustrous when polished. It is used as veneer for making fancy art boxes, cigarette cases and the like.

The double petal blossoms are preserved in salt for making a refreshing drink by floating a few blossoms in a cup of hot water. The beverage is called akura-yu, or cherry hot water. It is served on felicitous occasions such as the first meeting of a would-be bride and groom. During Girl's Doll Festival in Ilarch, confectioners carry a stock of sakura mochi, a dumpling containing sweet bean paste wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf.

For those about to experience their first Cherry Blossom Spring in Japan, I urge you to get out and see them in full bloom in the parks, a truly magnificent sight. Be careful as you stroll, however, so as to avoid the unsightly litter that infests the paths. In spring there always seems to be more trash due to the cherry blossom viewing parties, a lovely custom that brings families and friends together to marvel at the yearly renewal of nature. Picnic baskets and sake are part of the scene. As the rice wine flows, you will observe drunks, mainly a harmless lot. Their worst offense seems to be using the world as their private bedroom and inconveniencing the public by hogging the seating on trams and trains. And there are noisier ones, perhaps less tipsy who suddenly spy a foreigner and insist on striking up an unintelligible conversation.

For information about cherry blossoms, bulletin boards are set up in all train stations showing places, dates, and extent of blossoming. Drawings indicate buds, partial blooming, half blooms, and petals falling. We suggest a trip to Kosanji at Setoda where there are 700 cherry trees, returning via Senkoji park at onomichi where 10,000 trees bloom.
 

The Cherry as the National Flower of Japan

The cherry is called in the Japanese language "sakura," which is generally believed to be a corruption of the word "sakuya" (blooming) from the name of Princess Kono-hana-sakuya-Hime, who is enshrined on the top of Mt. Fuji. This long name literally means "tree-flowers-blooming-princess," for the cherry was so well known in those early days in Japan that the flower meant nothing but the cherry. This princess was so named because, it is said, she dropped from heaven upon a cherry tree. Hence, the cherry blossom is considered to be the national flower of Japan.

The cherry is extensively cultivated in Japan, though it grows wild on plains and in deep mountains in the country. When forty or fifty years old, it is some thirty of forty feet high, with a trunk three, four, or even six or eight feet in circumference.

The cherry symbolizes the national character of the Japanese. This is because the life of a samurai of feudal times was proverbially compared to the short-lived cherry-blossoms, which last "no more than three days," for our samurai was always fully prepared to sacrifice his life at any time in the cause of his master. Another saying is that what "the cherry is among flowers is the samurai among men."

The Japanese are proud of their sakura, because no other people have it. Sakura is quite different from the cherry of other countries. To differentiate it from the fruit bearing varieties seen in many countries, Japanese sakura are called Japanese Flowering Cherry in English.

Thus, it is quite natural that the blossom has become the national flower of the country, and since very early days, the people have expressed their love and admiration of the flower in various ways; poets and artists have always been eager to depict the loveliness of the blossom in words and colors. Sakura is called the flower of flowers, and when the Japanese use the word 'hana' (flower), it means sakura. Hanami (flower viewing) means the viewing of sakura blossoms and no other flowers.

There are many varieties of sakura with blossoms of different tints and different blooming time. In the southern warmer region it blooms earlier than in the northern area. So if one starts viewing sakura in Southern Kyushu in the middle of March, and proceeds northward enjoying the blossom, he will end up in Hokkaido in May.

The blooming period of sakura is very short, and in a few days the flower is scattered away in the spring breeze. So the people are long accustomed to stop their daily work or close up their shops to have sakura viewing picnics at the best -and convenient places. It is the merriest occasion of the year, with drinks, music and song. On the other hand, some persons prefer to enjoy the blossom quietly and leisurely, and select remote mountain or seashore regions which are not frequented by many people.

The fruit of sakura is small and not edible, but the wood of the tree is very valuable. It is tightly arained and hard, and makes good furniture and fixtures. In old days, sakura wood was used in making printing blocks for books and pictures.

Sakura blossoms are preserved in salt. When the preserved flowers are put in hot water, it makes a fragrant and delightful drink. It is beautiful too, as the salted blossoms open up in the cup of hot water. This drink may be served at any time, but particularly it is customary to serve it at wedding ceremony and parties. Traditionally the people do not serve tea on such occasions, as 'chakasu' (turn to tea) means 'to turn everything to a jest.' So the serving of tea at a wedding ceremony may become an omen to turn the marriage into a sad failure. So Sakurayu or Sakura-tea is served in prayer for the happiness of the newly wed.

Sakura trees are planted on mountain sides, parks and gardens and most notably along many river embankments. When the blossoming season comes, these trees on winding river embankments turn into gorgeous belts of blossoms extending many miles. It is said, ancient people started to plant sakura trees on river banks, so that people would be lured to come and their walking on the embankments would solidly pack the earth to make it strong enough to withstand the flooding water in autumn.

 

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