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As one of Japan’s most iconic symbols, sakura embodies the soul of Japan. Imbued with tradition, spirit and aesthetics, sakura continues to inform the Japanese cultural landscape, manifesting in a timeless celebration of beauty and impermanence.

“If I were asked to explain the Japanese spirit, I would say it is wild cherry blossoms glowing in the morning sun!” – Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), nativist thinker and poet.

Chinami Nakajima, Sakura River – Meguro river with cherry trees, 2013  Courtesy of the Sato Sakura Museum in Tokyo

Cherry blossoms or Sakura in Japanese are a majestic symbol of spring. Thousands of tiny, delicate pastel flowers bloom on a single tree. At their most spectacular, the blossoms shed, petals flutter through the streets lining the ground. This magic and mystique are magnified by its short season, often only in full bloom for two weeks, serving as a potent visual reminder of the fragility and ephemeral nature of life. The centuries-old charm is a foundation of Japan’s history, culture and identity inspiring countless artists, designers, writers and poets over the centuries, all harnessing this fleeting phenomenon as the quintessential embodiment of graceful Japanese aesthetics.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Chiyoda Great Interior Flower Viewing (Chiyoda Ooku Ohamami)

In Japan, the impermanence of blooming sakuras is revered and cherished with ‘flower watching’ parties known as Hanami. The parties are a celebration of beauty, renewal and a welcome period of reflection on our transient lives. The tradition started in the eighth century during the Nara period (710–794) and was first associated with plum blossoms when the upper-class began hosting picnic-like parties beneath the trees. In the following Heian Period (794 – 1185), Emperor Saga ( who reigned from 809 to 823), liked to hold elaborate Hanami beneath the sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Poets and musicians would entertain his guests and dedicate their art to the beauty and symbolism of the trees. This marked Hanami as a tradition of the nation, beautifully portrayed in many traditional paintings ever since.

The cultural significance of sakura is profound and wide-reaching from embodying religious philosophy and military tributes to inspiring exquisite painting and anime storytelling. Originally it signified the beginning of the rice-planting season and people made offerings to the Kami gods of Shinto. In Buddhism, the sakura is a reminder of the concept Mono No Aware that recognises the impermanence of life. Sakura was also a key theme in the warrior culture of the samurai. Warriors were likened to cherry blossoms, born to live brilliantly and die young. Perhaps one of the sakura’s most recognised and widely celebrated influences is on art and literature, inspiring some of the most beautiful poems and paintings in Japanese history.

Left: Yamato Hasedera by Utagawa Hiroshige Right: Yayoi Asukayama Hanami by Kitao Shigemasa

During the Edo Period (1657-1867), thanks to a relative peace, economic prosperity, the growth of the cities and the rise of a middle class, a new sense of life and lifestyle emerged which made way for a unique artistic expression known as Ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). Woodblock prints known for their delicate colour and superb line were produced in their thousands by artists like Hiroshige, Hokusai and Harunobu. The prints chronicled the exuberant ‘floating world’ of Tokyo, then called Edo, capturing fleeting moments, the ambience of the landscape or the quiet execution of a daily task. These graceful and seemingly effortless prints are the product of astonishing technical achievements, design brilliance and elegant aesthetics and continue to be celebrated around the world.

Left: Ryo Date “Meguro river with cherry trees like clouds” – 2013 Courtesy of the Sato Sakura Museum in Tokyo
Right: Megumi Kato “The sound of flowers – A weeping cherry tree”- 2012-2013 Courtesy of the Sato Sakura Museum in Tokyo

Sakura’s graceful influence also informs contemporary artists. Megumi Yoda, Curator of the Sato Sakura Museum in Tokyo explains, “The sakura is a magnificent expression of nature, which changes from season to season and has cultivated Japanese aesthetics and views of nature since ancient times.” The museum which has a base in Tokyo and New York specialises in the compelling beauty of Nihonga paintings featuring both post-war masters and emerging artists. “Even when we take a look at contemporary Japanese painters, they embrace the tradition and unique view of “Kacho Fugetsu” (the beauties of nature). This is represented by the cherry blossoms and expresses with profound emotion the delicacy and graceful aesthetics of Japan.” The Sato Sakura Gallery represents Chinami Nakajima, one of the most prolific Japanese Nihonga masters. He is most recognised for his exquisite compositions of sakura, so much so that he is often referred to by a nickname sakura no Chinami,’ or, ‘Chinami of the Sakura Blossoms.’

An exhibition of Sakura paintings, Courtesy of the Sato Sakura Museum in Tokyo

In literature, sakura’s complex and layered metaphors were adopted by the four great haiku masters Kobayashi Issa, Masaoka Shiki, Yosa Buson and Matsuo Bashō. Each known for their attentive work that paid tribute to the iconic blossom and how it reflected nuances of the human experience. Murasaki Shikibu, author of The Tale of Genji, a Japanese masterpiece widely considered to be the world’s first novel was profoundly influenced by sakura’s temporal beauty. The term ‘Hanami’ was first used by the novelist to describe the cherry blossom viewing. In anime, sakura has become a frequent symbol of new beginnings. Friendship and alliances manifest as glowing cherry blossom rainbows, a reference to Japan’s gift of three thousand cherry blossom trees to the United States in 1912, while moments greeted with an abundance of cherry blossom floating in the air are a visual reminder of hope and new dreams.

Meguro River with Sakura, Courtesy of the Sato Sakura Museum in Tokyo

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