This time of year in Japan is defined by the brief bloom of cherry trees. Flowering cherries -- which are in the genus Prunus with some other delightful trees like peach and almond -- are known for their bloom rather than their fruit. While they have been bred to maximize flowering, some produce small fruits.
The flowering cherry trees are called "Sakura" in Japan, and their bloom has a special meaning. People have admired these trees for thousands of years. For the most part, the age of the trees is unknown, but the oldest cherry tree that still blooms is thought to be about 2,000 years old. The Sakura are in full bloom for about a week, and they are a country-wide metaphor for the beauty and brevity of life. It's common to bury loved ones under Sakura. The Sakura also represent the end of cold weather and the beginning of the growing season.
During this week, families celebrate with flower viewings called "Hanami". The tradition is to place tarps under the trees and have lunch or dinner or both. In order to secure a prime spot, it's often necessary to pay someone to guard your tarp or arrive really early (like 6am) to claim space. Right now, people are buzzing around Tokyo with tarps and cameras. This flower viewing tradition started in the 700s -- you heard right, not the 1700s, the 700s.
The cherry bloom is happening earlier due to climate change. In the next post, I'll talk about how we know that -- fun science! -- and how the earlier bloom season has affected people in Japan.