Cherry trees are in full bloom. Evening breeze disperses pale pink petals on to streets. It is a signal that spring has arrived. Looking at it, a teenage girl smiles, with her head in clouds. She is already planning a lunch menu in her head for a date with her boyfriend under the cherry tree.
It is sometime during Heian period. The emperor is trying to woo his lady love into marrying him. She does not budge. He whispers in her ear, “Until sakura is in bloom.” That means he will make her fall in love with him before spring ends.
An elderly couple, in their seventies, is sitting on a stone bench under a cherry tree holding hands. “It has been 50 years, has it not since we first met at this place.” he reminisces. She smiles and squeezes his hand.
These are different scenarios from three different anime and manga I have read so far. They are set in different times – ancient and modern. But there is one aspect they have in common – cherry blossoms or sakura that are in full bloom. Many important moments like a first date, your confession and good byes are centred around sakura that is in full bloom. They are records of them in ancient literature like The Tale of Genji. So what is so special about sakura that is in full bloom?
The visage of Japan in spring far surpass that of those beautiful paintings you see. Rows of cherry trees that adorn the city and rural areas lend transient beauty to Japan when they bloom. The roads look like a bed made of pale pink petals. Every turn you take, these blossoms are like pink screen that dances to the tunes of wind. In short, sakura in full bloom makes the city is breathtaking.
Every year cherry blossoms festival or hanami is celebrated throughout the country. The Japanese meteorological department forecasts when sakura will bloom and media and TV channels exclusively cover hanami. It is a traditional Japanese custom of enjoying beauty of flowers, here it mostly refers to cherry or sakura.
The practice of hanami began centuries ago. The custom is said to have started during the Nara period (710–794) when it was ume (plum) blossoms that people admired in the beginning. But by the Heian period (794–1185), sakura came to attract more attention and hanami was synonymous with sakura. Evidence for this could be found in The Tale of Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu, a courtesan of that time.
Originally sakura was used to divine that year’s harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. It was believed that kami (a shinto god) resided in these trees. So people made offerings and partook sake. This practice changed over time. Forecasting sakura bloom is still important in determining change in climatic conditions. But they have become more of a reason to celebrate with family, friends and loved ones. Thousands of people gather to view sakura, which will be in bloom from March to May, every year in parks and other places.
This custom is so prominent in Japan that having a chapter in a manga on hanami is not uncommon. In fact, it is a must have chapter in most shoujo and josei worked aimed at teenage girls and women. In these chapters you will find friends and family planning a picnic under sakura tree with homemade food. They spend hours together under the tree eating food and drinking sake.
Many food stalls are put up where there are cherry trees, making it sort of like a matsuri. The kind of food you get here include yakisoba (stir-fried noodles), taiyaki (fish shaped bun filled with red bean paste), apple candies, takoyaki (fried octopus food) and okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes). These are some common street foods you can relish while viewing flowers.
It is not just picnics and social gathering, for many it is an ideal first date location. In manga you will see that spring puts a teenage girl’s’ head in clouds who dream about preparing homemade food for her crush and fantasize about their first kiss under the bountiful cherry blossoms. They do sound romantic, don’t they?
Though there are no definite seasons in India, watching anime and reading manga I can to some extent see why cherry viewing a big deal. It is a sign of spring, a new beginning. Temperatures become warmer, as if trying to get out of gloomy winters. It makes you nostalgic, as you take a trip down your memory to the time of your first date and moments of happiness you shared with your friends and family. And as spring dawns and sakura blooms, your spirits are up. You are happy.
When you are elated, what is wrong with having your head in clouds, indulging yourself in a bit of fantasy and drinking sake to your heart’s content, under the shade of sakura?