Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why the obsession with Sakura?

Sakura = Cherry Blossoms

The other day I was standing in a forest of dark green pines trees and grey tombstones markers, when suddenly, like an eruption of light from the ground, I spotted a sakura tree. It was all alone and beaming, revelling in its escape from monotony.

This breathtaking display of fierce beauty only lasts a couple weeks each spring. This spring, we were lucky enough to arrive on the day the first buds began to open and we have been watching all week as the sakura continue to open all over Yamaguchi. This evening, we will be sharing in a time honored tradition around these parts; we will be attending a hanami party (flower-watching party). We will head down to the river with friends and acquaintances to barbeque some food... essentially to eat, drink and be merry while admiring the sakura in near full bloom.

There are many theories as to why everyone is so obsessed with this little flower. After all, we have them in the U.S. but they are not as much of a national obsession there as they are here. Sure, Sakura are heralds of springtime, but so are daffodils.

The Japanese sakura season only lasts two weeks. These little flowers bloom and put on a stunning show all over Japan for two weeks, only to die in less days shortly after. Some Japanese say it's as if their sole purpose is to show us how to live: in a flash of beauty that knows its own mortality. Even their death, a snow of white petals in the tiniest gust of wind, feels spiritual.

In Japan, the samurai would meditate on the sakura. Samurai were fierce warriors, originally hired by Buddhist temples to defend the temple from other rival temples. However, they were aggressors too. Ironically, the greatest tenant of Buddhism is to not kill, which the samurai frequently did. So, they would meditate on the sakura, this tiny flower which died so willingly, and use its life both as a guide for their spiritual life and as a way to escape from the horror and violence of their physical life.

I think one of the biggest differences I've found between America and everywhere else in the world is the way we view death. Americans shun the idea, except for New Orleans. We hide behind medications, Botox, corpses with makeup, cemented caskets, and the list goes on. The Chinese remember and honor their dead every day through offerings and prayers. Ghanaians have huge dance parties in the street when someone in the village dies. And the Japanese worship sakura.

Brian's Note:
Washington D.C. has its own interested history with Japan's cherry blossoms. From Wikipedia: "The National Cherry Blossom Festival is a spring celebration in Washington, D.C. commemorating the March 27, 1912, gift of Japanese cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington. Mayor Ozaki donated the trees in an effort to enhance the growing friendship between the United States and Japan and also celebrate the continued close relationship between the two nations." - full Wikipedia article


  1. Sakura may be like the exquisite magnolias that bloom bravely every March in Philadelphia, only to be wiped out within days by late winter storm. within days. Here in San Francisco, the arboretum has specimen magnolias that show their stuff beginning in late January...a sure sign of spring.

  2. ah, those poor little flowers in Philly, i can only imagine. Here in Yamaguchi, it was a colder than usual spring so the flowers opened later, but once they were opened it was much warmer (this week), so they stayed open a good while and have only started to fall off this weekend. A wind full of Sakura flowers is quite the sight to see!
    I got some more good pictures today in a different town where I teach classes, so more pictures are on the way!