Cherry blossom season in Japan begins as early as January in Okinawa and moves north, ending as late as May in Hokkaido. For most of the major cities in Japan, the first blossoms (kaika) open in late March/early April, reaching full bloom (mankai) about a week later. Full bloom itself lasts about a week, and can be cut short by wind or rain, as the blossoms are very delicate.
While a cherry blossom is actually the flower of any of several trees of the genus Prunus that can be found around the world, it is the Japanese cherry blossom (sakura) that the term is most commonly associated with.
I was in Osaka in early April in 2014, which coincided with full bloom. Cherry trees were blossoming all over the city, and one of the best places to see the sakura was Osaka Castle Park, which is home to about 600 cherry trees, as well as 95 kinds of Japanese apricot/plum (ume) flowers across 1250 trees which also bloom in Spring and look quite similar to sakura.
The blooming of the sakura is considered a symbol of hope and renewal, and signifies that winter has come to an end and spring is on its way. Philosophically, the short blooming season represents the ephemeral nature of life as well as mortality – youth and beauty followed by sudden death.
Every year, the Japanese Meteorological Agency tracks the “cherry blossom front” as it moves up the country, and Japanese flock to the various parks, temples and shrines where the cherry blossoms are blooming to hold flower viewing parties and to picnic under the cherry trees (hanami). The hanami tradition was started by the elite of the Imperial Court during the Nara Period in 710-794 and was, over time, adopted by the common people, becoming entrenched across all levels of Japanese society by the Edo period in the early 1600s.
When I was at Osaka Castle Park, it was quite busy with tourists, school groups, families and bridal parties making the most of the natural beauty.
There’s really not much else to say about cherry blossom season in Japan. It’s a wonderful thing to experience, not just for the beauty of the cherry blossoms themselves, but for the happiness and sense of optimism that the season brings. It also doesn’t hurt that the sakura tastes great too, and is used as an ingredient to flavour all sorts of food and drink during this time of year, including chocolate, cakes, soda and beer.