Cherry blossoms have long been a symbol of the fragile nature of life in Japanese culture--a concept closely tied to Buddhist influences. The blossoms' brief, brilliant blooming period is often seen as a metaphor for the fleeting beauty of youth and the ephemeral nature of existence.
The tradition of hanami translates to any place where you can view cherry blossoms, and it goes well beyond Japan. The tradition is believed to have originated during the Nara Period (710–794 CE). Initially, it was plum blossoms (ume) that were admired, but by the Heian Period (794–1185 CE), cherry blossoms came to attract more attention. The Heian court nobles of Japan would hold elaborate outdoor feasts under the blooming sakura trees, celebrating with sake and food. These gatherings were occasions for writing and reciting poetry that reflected the natural beauty of the blossoms.While hanami was initially a pastime of the elite, cherry blossom viewing gradually became popular among the common people during the Edo Period (1603–1868 CE). It was during this time that many of today's well-known sakura viewing spots were cultivated across Japan.
Beauty for the Masses
Today, people in Japan celebrate hanami by having outdoor parties under cherry trees in bloom. Parks are filled with thousands of people who enjoy food, drinks, and the company of friends and family as they appreciate the fleeting beauty of the sakura. The nation of Japan has made gifts of their flowering cherry trees to cities around the world as a sign of friendship, famously including Washington D.C., and many of the trees around the Seattle area come from a gift of 1,000 sakura trees made in 1976 by then-Japanese Prime Minister Take Miki.
While hanami may not be quite as popular here in the United States as it is in Japan, people are still drawn to the beauty of cherry blossom trees, especially in places with high concentrations of the trees, like Angle Lake Park here in Seattle Southside and the University of Washington campus.