TIM BUNTING

KIWI YAMABUSHI

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close up photography of cherry blossom tree

キウイ

Why does Japan love Sakura Cherry Blossoms?

If you’ve ever been in Japan during the spring, you would know that everyone is simply obsessed with the Sakura Cherry Blossoms. 

I mean, have you seen Starbucks? 

From Sakura-themed drinks like the Blooming Sakura Milk Tea and Sakura Strawberry Frappuccino, to the sakura donuts and sakura cakes and even sakura mints! Starbucks is really taking this sakura thing in its stride. 

Ok, ok, Starbucks might be a bit of an extreme, but the cherry blossom front making the national news everyday, the reporting of the sakura blooming in Kyoto for over 1200 years, and rivers lined with picnickers all vying for a good spot under the sakura, it’s all a bit much, don’t you think?

Said no one ever.

Enjoying the Sakura

Everyone in Japan flocks to the parks in spring, and why wouldn’t you? 

Sitting beneath an endless blanket of pink and white, snow-capped mountain under a deep blue sky, sipping on the aforementioned Starbucks Blooming Sakura Milk Tea, with perhaps a touch of your favourite sake, as the delicate petals slowly flutter in the breeze, the simple pleasures of spring. 

But have you ever stopped to wonder why Sakura? Why not daisies or daffodils, poppies or petunias? Why not, kami forbid, the true national flower of Japan, the one that appears on the Japanese passport and the 50-yen coin, the symbol of the Japanese imperial family, the chrysanthemum? It’s not called the sakura throne after all.

It might as well be, though. 

So, how did Sakura come to be the centre of attention, has it always been sakura? And what is the deep meaning placed on Sakura that makes it a motif in everything from Haiku poetry to fine Japanese art? The answer may surprise you. 

The etymology of Sakura

Mt. Chokai seen through the Sakura of Shonai Town

The word Sakura gives us hints into its underlying meaning. 

Sakura is said to come from Saku, 咲くmeaning to bloom or to burst, and ra 等 denoting plurality. However, this came after Kanji characters were introduced into Japan. 

There is another, much deeper, and much more ancient meaning of Sakura that might provide a bit more context.

Did you eat yet?

Meshi Kuttaga? Ippe ke! Have you eaten yet? As they say here in the local Shonai dialect.

As the staple of the Japanese diet, rice is obviously an extremely important part of Japanese cuisine and by extension culture. The word for rice in Japan, ご飯 Gohan, or 飯 Meshi, is synonymous with the word for a meal. The rice harvest is also the object of many matsuri festivals in Japan, that’s why so many festivals revolve around the harvest in autumn.

So what does this have to do with Sakura?

From the trees, to the rocks, to the rivers, to the mountains, to the waterfalls, to the flowers, I’m sure you’ve all heard of Shinto kami, the deities believed to inhabit absolutely everything in nature.

Well, the word Sakura is said to come from Yamato Japan, an ancient Japan before any Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana even existed in the country. A Japan very much ruled by Kami at the time. 

Sakura is a Yamato word made up of Sa and kura.

Sa refers to the kami of the rice plant, the kami of the rice field, and the kami of crops. In short, sa refers to the source of life, food. 

The Kura part comes from Iwakura, the dwelling place of the kami, where the kami are welcomed.

In other words, Sakura are where the kami of the rice plant dwell, they are the trees the kami of the rice fields possess and when the sakura bloom, the kami of the rice fields are saying konnichiwa. 

Is it a coincidence that wherever the sakura bloom, they always bloom right before rice planting season? Sakura in Japan bloom from south to north, beginning in Okinawa and ending in Hokkaido. Once they bloom, it’s time to get ready to plant the rice. 

Why do the Japanese love Hanami Flower Viewing so much?

Yura seen from Mt. Arakura, Sakura Mountain on the Shonai coast of Yamagata Prefecture

The condition of the Sakura was also used to predict that year’s harvest. So, what would you do if you knew you were in the presence of the kami? Eat, drink, and be merry of course! By entertaining the kami, people prayed for a good harvest, and enjoyed the company of the kami with food and sake, and dedicated performances to them under the sakura trees.

This is Hanami, the original flower viewing. This is the original reason why the Japanese love Sakura so much. Not some recent offering from Starbucks. 

But has it always been this way? And when exactly did this start?

The History of Sakura and Hanami

I mentioned it earlier, but in Kyoto, they have been recording the blossoming of the Yamazakura variety of cherry blossoms for over 1200 years (interestingly, the earliest time they ever bloomed in the year was in 2021). But if you refer to the Nihon Shoki, an 8th century chronicle of Japan, there are accounts of Hanami festivals dating back to the 3rd century AD.

However, it wasn’t always Sakura that was the centre of attention.

Back in the Nara period (710–794), the custom of enjoying sake and the presence of the Kami began a few weeks earlier than now, with the blooming of Ume, plum blossoms, instead. 

Enter Emperor Saga

Sakura bloom when the temperature outside is just warm enough. In the Heian period (794–1185), Emperor Saga wised up to the fact that when the ume plum blossoms are in full bloom the wind-chill factor meant that it was still better to be inside. By the time Emperor Saga had gotten round to it, Sakura had become the centre of attention, and rightly so.

Emperor Saga held flower viewing parties in the imperial court in Kyoto with sake and a huge feast to welcome in the kami. Before long the word Hanami, literally flower viewing, came to mean ‘viewing the Sakura’. 

Hanami was first recorded as a term synonymous with sakura viewing in the Heian era novel The Tale of Genji, and a tradition was set in stone. 

For the noble class that is. It took a while until the Hanami custom slowly made its way to the samurai class, but by the 18th century flower viewing was a well established spring custom for the common class as well. In fact, feudal lord Tokugawa Yoshimune, encouraged its proliferation by planting extensive areas of sakura, and establishing Edo’s first Starbucks at the Shibuya crossing. 

Attack of the clones

Mt. Chokai seen from Mt. Takadate

Interestingly, the majority of sakura you see around the world are not from wild species of cherry tree, rather they are cultivar. Many of the species have been cultivated since the Heian period using techniques such as grafting and cutting. Endemic to Japan, the Oshima species has produced many cultivars thanks to selective breeding such as the Yoshino cherry. 

Wild cherry trees bloom at different times even if they are in the same climate, but since the Oshima species are clones, when they are in the same climate, they bloom at the same time. This is why when you visit parks throughout Japan with Sakura, you can bask under the glory of not just one, but all of the Sakura trees. 

The fleeting nature of Sakura

Sakura flowers blossom beautifully for a week or so, and then scatter down in a brilliant display from a slight breeze. The short yet dazzling life of the Sakura is said to be representative of life itself, and reminds us of the concept of mono no aware, the awareness of impermanence or fleeting nature of life. 

Sakura flowers aren’t seen to be prettier than other flowers such daisies or daffodils, poppies or petunias. This Mono no aware gives sakura its special appeal, and is why sakura is a common motif in Haiku and other Japanese art.

Why Sakura? 

Sakura are a reminder that the kami have come to bless us with food, the gift of life. They are a reminder that we should be thankful to the kami, but at the same time, they are a reminder that our lives are limited and should be enjoyed when we get the chance. Which for me is as good an excuse as any to have a Starbucks Blooming Sakura Milk Tea under the pink and white flowers. 

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hi, I’m Tim Bunting AKA the Kiwi Yamabushi, a New Zealander who became a Yamabushi Ascetic in the Dewa Sanzan mountains of north Japan. I’m part of the Yamabushido team, and we host life-altering Yamabushi training on the Dewa Sanzan (website link). People come to us for the ultimate mindfulness experience, to reach the next level, or simply connect with nature and themselves.


I’m on a mission to summit all 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Prefecture to spread the splendour of this fabulous location, and in dedication to all those who lost their lives out in nature, including my father.


On my daily blog I post thoughts of a practicing Yamabushi that I hope people can use to better themselves and live as fulfilling a life as possible.


Sign up to the weekly Mountains of Wisdom newsletter, follow me on social (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Clubhouse, all @kiwiyamabushi), or send me an email via the link below to stay in touch.


Tim.

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Sakata City, Yamagata, Japan 

timb008@gmail.com

All photos my own. Contact for more. 

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