Another name for April is “Hana-zangetsu” meaning that there are still some flowers left. Although officially it is the second month of Spring in the solar calendar, traditionally it corresponds to the end of the season.
April is all about the ubiquitous cherry blossom (sakura). Revered as the national flower and referenced in countless songs and poems, these blossoms steadfastly represent the aesthetic beauty of Japan.
Samurai in the middle ages, not afraid to die at the peak of life were symbolized by the image of the cherry blossom falling off a branch while still perfect and unwithered. There are a number of phrases related to sakura, my favourite of which is “sakura fubuki” which connotes “cherry blossom blizzard”. It is quite startling to behold petals fluttering to the ground enmasse, as they fall off branches in sudden gusts of wind.
In modern Japan too, this is an auspicious time of beginnings. Not only is it the start of the financial year when university graduates are inducted into company life as “freshmen/women”, it is also the start of the school year from elementary through university. There are many social gatherings to celebrate these rites of passage and epitomized by large “hana-mi” (cherry blossom viewing” parties. A hana-mi party in full swing is a site to behold. My favourite party venues tend to be at shrines like Hirano in the west of Kyoto or under the “grand dame” of Weeping Cherry “shidare-zakura” at Maruyma Park near Yasaka Shrine downtown. There is more than a distinct air of gaiety (bordering on raucousness) particularly in the evenings as sake and beer fuel impromptu public karaoke sessions and the populace dare to “let their collective hair down” in a manner that is quite atypical for such an etiquette focused culture.
Speaking of cherry trees themselves: there is a large variety.
The season begins with higan-zakura which tend to have small single blossoms; yama-zakura that bloom at the same time that their delicate browny-pink leaves come out. The most common and quintessential image is that of somei-yoshino. the sight of the fluffy white blooms resembling clouds against a backdrop of blue sky is indeed magical to behold. Finally, the double pink yae-zakura which look like nothing other than pink candy floss. Notwithstanding the range of blossoms, the entire blooming season is still relatively short and emphazises for the Japanese the ephemeral beauty of nature.
Although sakura receive all the attention this month, there are many other things to enjoy in domestic and temple gardens round the city. The delicate mauve coloured, frilled petals of the Japanese iris(shaga) forms carpets where it is allowed to spread freely. Mid month also sees the blooming of the intensely yellow kerria (yamabuki), (member of the Rose family). It occurs in either a single or double bloom and can be appreciated along the canal that runs alongside the famous Philosopher’s Path in the north-east of the city. It has long been loved as a flower native to Japan and even appears in the ancient poetry text, the Man’yoshu. Seen adjacent to the kerria is mitsumata which is a deciduous shrub of the Daphne (jinchoge) family. Flowers are yellow and cylindrical appearing before the leaves. It is a raw material for traditional papermaking.
Nevertheless, the limelight squarely belongs with cherry blossom this month and various sweets are made with the pickled leaves of sakura with a sweet bean paste filling (sakura-mochi). The blossoms may also be preserved and infused in hot water to make a fragrant tea.
Kono-iro ka / hito ni mo utsuse / sakura-mochi
Transfer to us your feminine charms, Sakura-mochi