Ten things to know about the sakura
The 'blossom front' sweeps Japan from south to north, lasting for a mere week or so in each region, and only a handful of days in full bloom. Sad, sure, but the Japanese celebrate the falling petals as mono no aware, an aesthetic ideal that highlights 'the pathos of things', or the beauty in the passing.
Aren't they? As such a special flower, the sakura has a name for its own shade: sakura-iro, a traditional Japanese colour. In fact, there's a whole range of these colours to describe hues found on kimono, paintings and arts and crafts of the blossomy kind. In reality, sakura do actually come in many different shades, colouring spring with a wide range of pink and white.
The flowers are pretty, and hanami may be all about showing our appreciation for this beautiful season, but every experienced hanami-goer knows it's not the blossoms that matter most. Hana yori dango is a proverb that literally means 'sweets over flowers' but also translates to 'practicality over aesthetics'. It refers to how people are more focused on the dango (sweet dumplings), food or beer, or whatever 'practical' thing in front of them, than on starting at the flowers.
Now, your average hanami snack skewer features three blobs of dango dumplings, which come in sakura-iro, white and green to represent spring, winter and summer respectively. Wait... where's autumn? The common explanation is that this tradition evolved from a play on words since 'no autumn', or aki nai in Japanese, has the same meaning as 'you won't get bored'. But who would actually be bored with the most beautiful season of the year?
A typical blossom season lasts from the end of March to the beginning of April, when the new fiscal and academic year starts. The sakura may be Japan's most beloved flower, but surprisingly it is not the formal floral emblem – actually, Japan doesn't have an official national flower at all. The other representative bloom would be chrysanthemum (as in 'The Chrysanthemum and the Sword'), but we all know cherry blossoms are better. Anyway, the sakura decorates ¥100 coins while chrysanthemums adorn ¥50 coins – there's your difference in value.
If you're the type that goes bonkers on where the sakura zensen ('cherry blossom front') exactly is at the moment, you might've noticed that the blossom is described in different stages. The official weather forecast usually employs only seven of these, but a few sakura-maniacs have names for 11 stages of the bloom. Those are budding, bulging bud, flowering, 10%, 30%, 50% and 70% bloom, full bloom, starting to fall, falling, and officially over. Spare a thought for those poor blossom observers...
How exactly do we know when the 'sakura front' hits each region? Well, the Japan Meteorological Agency appoints a 'standard tree' in every area to serve as a benchmark for the announcement and to determine the percentage of the bloom (they have backup trees, too). In Tokyo, one somei-yoshino tree at Yasukuni Shrine takes on this crucial role. When said tree flowers (to be exact, when five to six flowers on the same tree bloom), the whole of Tokyo follows and – boom – it's officially spring.
Along with Hirosaki Park in Aomori Prefecture and Takada Park in Niigata Prefecture, Ueno Park is listed as one of Japan's 'three best night sakura spots'. And with the 800 trees on the grounds gracefully lit up after sunset, it's hard to argue with the choice.
Every time a train arrives at Musashi-Koganei Station on the Chuo line, the platform speakers play 'Sakura Sakura', a traditional folk tune. Why? Well, way back in the day, the Tamagawa Aqueduct in Koganei was a famed hanami spot that even attracted Emperor Meiji and his entourage. When the Chuo line first opened in 1889, linking Shinjuku and Tachikawa, the Koganei area didn't have a single station. A temporary stop was only set up to accommodate blossom-viewers in 1924, while a permanent version opened two years later. Nowadays, the imperially approved blossoms can be found in nearby Koganei Park.