Japanese flowering cherry trees (Prunus serrulata) have been revered in Japan for at least a millennia. For many centuries, the national flower has been the much-loved sakura (cherry blossoms). These lovely trees have graced everything from Japanese poetry like the haiku below to beautiful kimonos, from traditional Japanese gardens to evocative paintings. They have come to symbolize the country of Japan and its people.
The Japanese celebrate the cherry blossom as a symbol of rebirth and a welcome reminder that spring is finally on its way. The flower’s ephemeral beauty is also a gentle reminder that life is fleeting so it should be enjoyed while it lasts. Perhaps that’s where the tradition of hanami began.
A Celebration of Life
How many, many things
They call to mind
Haiku by 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho
Hanami or the Cherry Blossom Festival is a way to celebrate the brief beauty of cherry blossoms with a long day of picnicking, music, and companionship spent under the fully opened blossoms. Families, friends, and groups of coworkers all gather beneath the cherry trees to celebrate and pay due homage to these revered blossoms by studying their delicate beauty and contemplating their brief existence.
The elaborate picnics include sake or tea, seasonal cherry-themed foods like rice balls and sweet rice cakes (both dyed pink and sometimes wrapped in pickled cherry leaves), and treats made from red bean paste. You can also purchase pre-packaged picnic boxes if you don’t have time to prepare your own picnic. Even the dishware, teapots, and napkins are often decorated with cherry blossom motifs!
There is no set day for the festival since it depends on when the trees choose to bloom. Blossom forecasts follow the trees as they bloom across the country from early February in Okinawa to early May in Sapporo. It’s important to make time for this festival as soon as the trees bloom since those blossoms are followed all too soon by delicate showers of falling pink or white petals. Cherry blossoms only last for a week to perhaps a month. There’s no time to waste if you want to enjoy the delicate, fleeting beauty of cherry blossoms!
Honoring the Cherry Blossoms
“How can we ever lose interest in life? Spring has come again, and cherry trees bloom in the mountains.”
Japanese poet Ryokan Taigu
The Cherry Blossom Festival is more than just a fun day of song, food, and friendship. It’s also an opportunity to show respect for the blossoms that inspired it. These blossoms are deeply meaningful to the Japanese people. For many centuries, they have been a symbol of rebirth and hope, of reverence for life, and of the simplicity and purity of nature. They’re also an acknowledgment that life is exquisitely beautiful but also fragile and all too short.
You can show your appreciation and regard for these deeply symbolic cherry trees by not doing anything to disrupt their delicate beauty. That means no shaking or climbing the trees and definitely no picking the blossoms!
Instead, study the shape of the blossoms, ponder their subtle blush pink or white coloring, and enjoy their delicate fragrance. Then honor them with a sketch, painting, or haiku. if you aren’t an artist or poet, just quietly reading beneath them is also an acceptable way to show your respect for these cherished trees.
A Symbol of Life and Death
“The cherry is first among flowers as the samurai is among men.”
For centuries, the beloved sakura symbolized both birth when they blossomed and mortality when vast numbers of their petals fell shortly afterward. Samurai, the feudal warriors of Japan, were taught a strict moral code (bushido or ‘the way of the warrior’) that encouraged them to embrace the inevitability of death without fear. Since their lives were often cut short in battle, fallen sakura petals came to symbolize their brief but glorious lives.
During WWII, kamikaze pilots often lovingly painted cherry blossoms on their planes before embarking on their suicide missions. Their goal was to “die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor”.
Each of the thousands of fallen petals at the Yasukuni Jinja shrine in Chiyoda, Tokyo was believed to symbolize one of Japan’s fallen soldiers. Cherry blossoms also served as a symbol of hope and comfort for Japanese civilians during the war because of their symbolic links to renewal and rebirth. Fortunately, cherry blossoms no longer represent war and death. Now they are valued for their beautiful aesthetics, for philosophical reasons as we contemplate our lives, and as a symbol of friendship between countries.
A Lasting Gift of Friendship
In the cherry blossom’s shade, there’s no such thing as a stranger.
Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa
The story of how our nation’s capital became famous for its cherry trees starts with a local socialite and author named Mrs. Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore. After more than two decades of her idea being ignored by officials, she sent a letter expressing her interest in planting cherry trees around the Tidal Basin to the new First Lady, Helen (Nellie) Herron Taft in 1909. Both women had lived in Japan and Mrs. Taft quickly agreed to the plan with some minor modifications to the layout of the trees.
When the Japanese consul learned of the plan, he offered to donate approximately 2,000 cherry trees to the effort in the spirit of friendship between the two countries. The huge shipment of trees arrived in the city in 1910. Unfortunately, upon inspection, the Department of Agriculture discovered that the trees were infested with insects that had hitched a ride all the way from Japan. President Taft was forced to order the generous gift from Japan burned in order to protect American horticulture.
Disappointed but undaunted, the Japanese, encouraged by the mayor of Tokyo, sent another shipment of cherry trees. This one arrived in March of 1912 and consisted of approximately 3,000 healthy trees that arrived minus any hitchhikers. The first pair of saplings were planted by First Lady Helen ‘Nellie’ Taft and Viscountess Chinda, the Japanese ambassador’s wife, on the Tidal Basin’s northern bank. There’s a small plaque commemorating the event at the feet of those two trees still today. Remarkable, given that the average lifespan of a Japanese cherry is only 15 to 20 years! The extraordinary lifespan of the District’s trees is due to the loving attention and expert care these beloved trees receive.
Celebrating Cherry Blossoms in Washington, DC
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now is hung with bloom along the bough.
English poet A. E. Housman
The ethereal pink and white flowers of the cherry blossoms have inspired our own beloved festival honoring these lovely trees. The National Cherry Blossom Festival honors the Japanese people’s generous gift and our two countries’ ongoing friendship with a cultural event that takes place across the city. Appropriately, most of the festival activities take place around the Tidal Basin, home of the original gift of cherry trees.
The first small beginnings of a ‘festival’ took place when the two original trees were planted on March 27, 1912. The first ‘real’ festival took place fifteen years later when school children re-enacted the first tree planting. In 2012, a five-week celebration was held to mark the 100th anniversary of the original gift from Japan to the US. It now takes place across four consecutive weekends (two weeks) each spring from March to April.
The United States reciprocated with a gift of flowering dogwood trees in 1915. The two countries continue to exchange occasional gifts during the festival to celebrate the friendship between the people of the United States and the people of Japan. To honor First Lady Helen Taft’s contribution, it has become a tradition for America’s First Ladies to take part in the festival by planting trees, serving as honorary chairs, acting as festival proponents, or greeting distinguished guests.
Getting the Timing Just Right
One and a half million people visit the city to enjoy the fleeting beauty of the cherry blossoms and take part in the festival each year. Timing this iconic celebration of nature’s beauty is critical. The blossoms are at their peak when around 70% of the Yoshino cherry blossoms are open. It’s the National Park Service’s job to predict when the clouds of billowing pink and white blossoms will arrive. They carefully examine the trees and keep a close eye on weather conditions.
As you might imagine, this is a nerve-racking job! Too soon, and the crowds will arrive before the blossoms. Too late, and the blossoms may vanish before their admirers arrive. Just like Goldilocks, the tree watchers at the National Park Service have to get it just right! Maybe that’s why they keep revising their forecast all the way up to the day the blossoms hit their peak. That way, festival-goers can arrive when the cherry blossoms are in their full glory.
Avoiding the Crowds
If you would prefer to enjoy the cherry blossoms in a quieter, more contemplative way than around the crowded Tidal Basin, you may want to visit Arlington National Cemetery. It offers a variety of cherry trees, including Yoshino, Akebono, and weeping cherries. They’re surrounded by Japanese crab apples, dogwoods, magnolias, and other blooming trees and shrubs. Enjoy the serene beauty of our national cemetery and pay tribute to our own fallen soldiers.
You might also want to give a nod to Mrs. Taft, who is buried here along with President Taft. After all, she was instrumental in bringing the cherry blossom trees to our country!
Enjoying Everything Washington, DC Has to Offer
When you live in the DC area, you can enjoy the brief burst of gorgeous cherry blossoms every spring. During the rest of the year, there are fantastic monuments, museums, and memorials to see, along with the National Zoo and countless other worthy attractions. Enjoy world-class dining, a vibrant nightlife, and the constant hustle and bustle of our nation’s capitol.
Then retire to the luxurious amenities of an apartment in one of the DC area’s most fantastic neighborhoods. Whether you’re looking for a comfortable residential neighborhood or an exciting urban lifestyle, there’s a perfect apartment for you! We have apartment buildings throughout DC’s most desirable neighborhoods and our expert team can help you choose one that meets your unique lifestyle. Contact us for more information and to schedule a tour today. We can’t wait to help you experience life in DC!