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The Poetic Power of Sakura

Written by Life in Kansai

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Find out what the ancient Japanese poets had to say about cherry blossom…

sakura_editThe words sakura and hanami are two of the first you learn on arrival in Japan – especially if you come here in the spring. Sakura, Japan’s world-famous cherry blossom, is not the official national flower (that’s the chrysanthemum) but it might as well be. From late February to early May, images of sakura adorn shop windows, advertisements, magazines and product packaging. Not to mention the back of the one hundred yen coin, on which the flower is engraved. And hanami (literally ‘flower-viewing’ – sitting under a flowering cherry tree with a picnic) has been popular since the Heian era (794–1185). So why is it that sakura has this capacity for stealing people’s hearts?

Cherry blossoms haven’t always been held in such high regard. Although they frequently feature in the Japanese form of poetry known as waka from the Heian era onwards, before that, during the Nara period (710–794), the hana (flowers) appearing in waka poetry were ume (plum) blossoms rather than sakura. Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet and politician of the Heian period who is now revered as Tenman Tenjin, the Shinto deity of scholarship, was a lover of ume blossoms, and Tenmangu shrines around Japan, which are dedicated to him, have taken the ume blossom as a symbol. Plum trees bloom for longer than cherry trees, and their fruit can be used to make umeboshi (salty sour plum often eaten with rice) and umeshu (plum wine).

But back to sakura. In the words of Heian era poet Ariwara no Narihira (825–880):

Heian Japanese「よのなかに たえてさくらの なかりせば はるのこころは のどけからまし」
(Yononakani taetesakurano nakariseba harunokokorowa nodokekaramashi)

This famous poem, from the Kokin Wakashū anthology of waka poetry, can be translated as, ‘If there were no cherry blossoms in this world, I would feel calm in spring.’ The poet’s springtime unease is because of the ephemeral beauty of the sakura, which bloom so briefly, reminding him of the transience of human life.


Image: lasta29, Flickr

Among the many excellent places to see sakura is Nara, capital of Japan during the Nara period. Nestled within Nara Prefecture is the famous Mt Yoshino, covered in a thick carpet of approximately thirty thousand Yamazakura cherry trees. This view is known as senbonzakura (a thousand cherry trees). Toyotomi Hideyoshi, daimyo (lord), warrior and politician of the Sengoku period (1467–1603), was a great fan of Mt Yoshino’s sakura display and would have hanami there in springtime.

If you want to follow Hideyoshi’s example and take a trip to Mt Yoshino yourself this year, April is the month to choose, but check the sakura forecast to be sure. You can find it at

Access: Yoshino Station on the Kintetsu Yoshino Line. Kamisenbon (upper) area is a 40-min walk and Nakasenbon (mid) area is a 25-min walk. Information on buses and ropeway available at Yoshino Station.
Illuminations: 26th March–24th April, 6pm–9pm.

By Life in Kansai


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