Japanese have been enjoying cherry blossom viewing for a long time. Well, to be precise, it may have been plum blossom viewing. At least as far back as the Heian period — the middle ages — people went out to enjoy the blossoms.
It is thought that, at that time, plum was the preferred blossom for flower viewing. A picnic under the blossom was then, and still is now, a perfect opportunity to show off your best spring kimono.
Today the convention is that one does not wear the actual flower motifs when going out to see real blossoms. It would be considered crass to try and compete with the genuine article. Instead, one wears a kimono with a cherry blossom motif just before the flowers bloom, encouraging nature to bring them on, and speed up the arrival of spring.
The life of the actual flowers is very short, a week to 10 days at the most. A strong wind or a powerful rainfall can be enough to bring down the blossom and cause a whirl of spring snow, chasing along the gutters, and down the rivers. Their short life is a part of their beauty, and the fleeting nature of the scene makes Japanese rush to get out and enjoy them on the best weekend of the year for cherry blossom viewings.
Nowadays it is possible to see rows of blue plastic sheets pegged down and held with bags and picnic boxes as placeholders in parks and famous cherry blossom sites. Junior members of companies often arrive early to prepare for company cherry blossom viewing parties, which end up being all about having a good time outside with some food and drink, and forgetting about the blossoms overhead.
In days gone by, according to screens and illustrations, people marked their spot with colored ropes, and often hung their outer kimono decoratively over the ropes. The surrounding garments offered a little privacy, but also a chance to show off one’s lovely garments to the passers-by.
In emaki mono scrolls, Heian period courtiers are shown playing kemari, a kind of football, under the blossoms. Pictures of kimono thrown over the ropes, called “Whose sleeves?” were painted until well into the Edo period.
The sakura, cherry blossom, has always been a popular motif on kimono. With its distinctive five heart-shaped petals in delicate pink, it is invariably a delicate and lovely motif, painted splendidly by Yamamoto Yuki in the yuzen technique (in the photos).
Such a kimono is really a prize. Usually it will appear in combination with other flowers so that the kimono can be worn at other times of the year. But an exclusively sakura kimono can only be worn just before the viewing season, and is thus a luxury item.
O-hanami, flower blossom viewing, is a simple and inexpensive pleasure that can be enjoyed freely by all. If large gatherings are not permitted, one can choose a quiet time for a walk under the blossoms.
In the evening the fragrance of the blossoms is particularly noticeable and pleasant. They can appear as a pale lavender color in artificial light under the backdrop of a dark sky.
The blossoms remind us every year that spring has come. And they remind us to go out and look at how wonderful nature still is, year by year without fail.
It is not surprising that Japanese love cherry blossoms. After all, Japan looks fantastic when the blooms are adorning the trees.
Author: Shiela Cliffe
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