As another cherry blossom season transpires, a brief reflection seems timely. We celebrate the phenomenon in spectacular fashion with the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Taking place in our front yard, the Festival has been recognized as one of the top three in the world. Each year it attracts over 1.5 million people and generates well over $125 million for Washington, D.C. This year it set a number of transit records.
Thanks to a remarkable partnership between Hoffman-Madison, the Washington Waterfront Association, and others, the day-long SW Waterfront Fireworks Festival has become one of the Festival’s signature events, bringing an estimated 60,000 people to Southwest. By all definitions it’s a seminal event for the city and Southwest. And yet, like many festivals, celebrations, or holidays, it seems all too easy to lose track of the whys and whats of the commemorating.
Characterized by their vivid fragility, cherry blossoms are known for their short but brilliant blooming season, a natural process that metaphorically describes life. The tradition of enjoying this transient beauty dates back to Japan’s Nara Period (710–794). “Hanami” or flower viewing as it’s traditionally known, is the practice of picnicking under a blooming cherry tree. The Japanese would go into the mountains each spring to the trees. The trees were considered sacred since they were understood to carry the soul of the mountain gods down to humans. Under local folklore, the mountain deity traveled down to the fields every spring as the cherry blossoms fell and transformed into the deity of the rice paddies, a critical crop.
Over the years, cherry blossoms have been associated with various ephemeral phenomena such as clouds. One of the primary cultural associations is Japanese nationalism and militarism. The blossoms exemplify the noble character of the “Japanese soul” — men who do not fear death. A fallen cherry blossom symbolizes a fallen samurai warrior who sacrificed his life for the emperor. Ritual suicide became a key part of the samurai code, symbolized by the cherry blossom, which falls at the moment of its greatest beauty: an ideal death. During World War II, the symbolism passed on as blossoms were painted on the side of kamikaze warplanes.
The very transitory nature of the blossoms underscores their delicate yet transient beauty, thus making the blossoms an archetypal symbol of the melancholic beauty of impermanence. This paradigm characterizes the Japanese cultural tradition of “mono no aware.” Roughly translated as the “poignant beauty of things” it describes a cultivated sensitivity to the unavoidable transience of life, love, and all things. This awareness of transience cultivates a heightened appreciation of beauty, and evokes a gentle sadness at its passing.
Given the cherry blossoms’ rich symbolism, they’re frequently incorporated in Japanese artistic and consumer traditions. Every blossom season, I’m reminded of Akira Kurasawa’s epic film, Dreams. One of its eight episodes features a blooming field of trees as part of its exploration of humankind’s relationship to nature.
Today, most Japanese visit cherry blossom trees in groups, whether neighborhood, company, or student. It’s not unusual for student groups to take a half or full day off from school. Increasingly “yozakura,” or nighttime cherry tree gatherings, have become popular, particularly with younger populations. These gatherings feature lightings of cherry trees that vary from traditional paper lanterns to complex illuminations comparable with those created for winter holidays.
Whether for worshiping, nighttime parties, wedding pictures, quick drive-bys, casual strolls, picnicking, or playing, cherry blossoms provide a powerful forum – a forum that inspires contemplation, celebration, and commemoration. A forum that reminds us how beautiful, yet fleeting, life and its experiences are. Cheers to all those who make the experience such a blessing.
By: Kael Anderson