A cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese cherry, Prunus serrulata, which is called sakura after the Japanese (桜 or 櫻; さくら). Cherry blossom is speculated to be native to the Himalayas. Currently it is widely distributed, especially in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere including Europe, West Siberia, India, China, Japan, Korea, Canada, and the United States. The cherry blossom is considered the national flower of Japan. Many of the varieties that have been cultivated for ornamental use do not produce fruit. Edible cherries generally come from cultivars of the related species Prunus avium and Prunus cerasus. Cherry blossom are also closely related to other Prunus trees such as the almond, peach, plum and apricot and more distantly to apples, pears and roses.
“Hanami” is the centuries-old practice of picnicking under a blooming sakura or ume tree. The custom is said to have started during the Nara Period (710–794) when it was ume blossoms that people admired in the beginning. But by the Heian Period (794–1185), cherry blossoms came to attract more attention and hanami was synonymous with sakura. From then on, in both waka and haiku, “flowers” (花 hana?) meant “cherry blossoms”. The custom was originally limited to the elite of the Imperial Court, but soon spread to samurai society and, by the Edo period, to the common people as well. Tokugawa Yoshimune planted areas of cherry blossom trees to encourage this. Under the sakura trees, people had lunch and drank sake in cheerful feasts.
Woodblock print of Mount Fuji and cherry blossom from 36 Views of Mount Fuji by Hiroshige. Every year the Japanese Meteorological Agency and the public track the sakura zensen (cherry blossom front) as it moves northward up the archipelago with the approach of warmer weather via nightly forecasts following the weather segment of news programs. The blossoming begins in Okinawa in January and typically reaches Kyoto and Tokyo at the end of March or the beginning of April. It proceeds into areas at the higher altitudes and northward, arriving in Hokkaidō a few weeks later. Japanese pay close attention to these forecasts and turn out in large numbers at parks, shrines, and temples with family and friends to hold flower-viewing parties. Hanami festivals celebrate the beauty of the cherry blossom and for many are a chance to relax and enjoy the beautiful view. The custom of hanami dates back many centuries in Japan. The eighth-century chronicle Nihon Shoki (日本書紀) records hanami festivals being held as early as the third century AD.
Most Japanese schools and public buildings have cherry blossom trees outside of them. Since the fiscal and school year both begin in April, in many parts of Honshū, the first day of work or school coincides with the cherry blossom season. The Japan Cherry Blossom Association developed a list of Japan’s Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots with at least one location in every prefecture.
In Japan, cherry blossoms symbolize clouds due to their nature of blooming en masse, besides being an enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition that is often associated with Buddhist influence, and which is embodied in the concept of mono no aware. The association of the cherry blossom with mono no aware dates back to 18th-century scholar Motoori Norinaga. The transience of the blossoms, the exquisite beauty and volatility, has often been associated with mortality and graceful and readily acceptance of destiny and karma; for this reason, cherry blossoms are richly symbolic, and have been utilized often in Japanese art, manga, anime, and film, as well as at musical performances for ambient effect. There is at least one popular folk song, originally meant for the shakuhachi (bamboo flute), titled “Sakura”, and several pop songs. The flower is also represented on all manner of consumer goods in Japan, including kimono, stationery, and dishware.