Every year in Japan, hundreds upon hundreds of native cherry trees blossom, flowering and showering parks with thousands of delicate white petals. With treetops and canopies exploding in swaths of pink and white, it is a truly a sight to be behold. Given their beauty, it is no surprise that images of the cherry tree blossom abound in Japanese art and culture.
In Japan, cherry blossom season is a time to celebrate! The Japanese even have a special word, hanami. “Hanami” means “flower viewing,” but it usually refers to the custom of admiring the cherry blossoms when they bloom. Hanami is a nation-wide tradition and very much a big deal. People take time off to gather with their friends and families for a day to see the trees. It is custom for hanami to be accompanied by a picnic or barbeque, complete with sake and lots of tasty seasonal foods. Depending on where you are in Japan and when the local blossoms sprout, hanami occurs anywhere between March and May.
But the cherry blossoms are noteworthy not simply because they are beautiful. There are also incredibly fleeting! Once they blossom, the flowers last only about 14 days, after which they start falling to the ground. That is precisely why so many rush and gather to see them in their glory.
People have used the blossom’s brief period of beauty to reflect more deeply on the transient nature of life.
This is also why cherry blossoms are so prevalent in Japanese art. The cherry blossom’s short lifespan is particularly reminiscent of one of the vital tenets of Buddhism, that being the concept of impermanence. The idea of impermanence emphases that nothing is fixed and no living thing will last forever. As Buddha said, “Decay is inherent in all compound things.”
You could look at impermanence with a dreary attitude. The notion of impending death and decay, after all, is somewhat morbid. But the idea of impermanence, especially when understood through the tradition of hanami, reminds us that what is temporary is also a gift. One feels compelled to cherish all that is temporary precisely because its fleeting nature makes it all the more precious. Hanami brings the concept of impermanence into heightened focus, reminding us that we must appreciate, even celebrate, life in all its beauty and fragility while we can.
Buddha said, “Better to live a day and see the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without seeing the rise and fall of things.” In a sense, we are better off for recognizing the impermanent nature of things. When see that everything is temporary, including life itself, we take nothing for granted. We learn to enjoy experiences as they come and then let go when they are over.
While hanami is very much a Japanese tradition, it is by no means exclusive to the country! Cherry trees are all over the world. If you live in an area where there happen to be cherry trees at the local park or a public garden, you might feel compelled to partake in hanami yourself! Contact the park or garden to see if the blossoms have sprouted! Take a stroll, bring delicious food! Revel in the blossoms and your surroundings with the knowledge that is here today may be gone tomorrow.