In Japan, cherry blossom viewing (hanami) is an important time in the calendar, and the Japan Weather Association publishes a forecast of predicted blossoming dates for different areas. Blooming time depends on the weather and the geographical location, and depending on location this can be between January (eg on the southern subtropical island of Okinawa) and May (on the island of Hokkaido in the North).
I have been to Tokyo in April and seen beautiful blooms, but I have never ‘done’ the proper hanami. The hanami is a celebration which has gone on for thousands of years, where family, friends and work colleagues sit together in parks near cherry trees and feast and party. People might reserve their place in a prime spot by spreading out a blanket with their name on it, and then they will bring a picnic to eat, and sake to drink, whilst enjoying the blossom of the trees. Some of the nicest spots are in beautiful parks with backdrops of ancient temples, and there are guides to the best places to view cherry blossom throughout Japan.
There are over 100 varieties of cherry tree in Japan, from those with 5 petals (eg Somei Yoshino) to those with about 100 petals (eg Kikuzakura). A cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of the genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Cherry, Prunus serrulata, which is sometimes called sakura after the Japanese. The flowers can be white, pale pink, dark pink and yellow, and some change colour as they blossom. When viewing the blossom, it is customary to look at the blossom from close up, as well as to take in the view of the ‘clouds’ of the trees from afar. The cherry blossoms only usually last a short amount of time, and it is this short-lived blooming which means that they are associated with mortality. For the Japanese they are full of symbolism, and are often seen in Japanese art, manga, animé, and film.
But that’s enough about a cultural tradition which has been observed for centuries, where friends and family get together to celebrate a tree and its symbolic transient blossom. We get prunus trees in London too, several varieties too (I believe most often the prunus serrulata), and it is precisely now when we get to appreciate the trees in bloom just a minute or so from our house in South London. You might not get the crowds of families with their food and drink, you might not even get anyone particularly noticing these wonderful trees, but in March every year, you get a fabulous sight on the streets of London. Drakefell Road, SE4, is most largely featured in the photos below, but I have seen cherry trees elsewhere and, once you start looking, I imagine you will start to see them near where you live too. All that’s missing is the blue sky and a temple or ornamental garden in the background, but for a far shorter journey time I don’t think these specimens are half bad. Going on our recent changeable weather (we had a balmy day this week and snow today) we may well get a blue sky next week, in which case I promise some brighter pictures.
If anyone wants to do the Brockley hanami with me, just bring the sake (or beer) and I’ll bring the picnic (scotch eggs) – we can dodge the traffic and the weather to look at the blossom together. I’d love it if any local arborists could tell me about the history of the cherry trees in this area (long shot, I know, but always worth asking). And of course I’d love to hear from you if you have seen any good cherry trees recently.
I will leave you with a photo of one of my favourite cherry trees, which blooms in two colours at the same time.