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Flowers in The Sky - Cherry and Plum Blossom in Asian Culture - November 2004 Newsletter

 

As you look over our collection of products, you may see a recurring theme – there are blossoms everywhere! From dishes to rice cookers, chopsticks to stationery, cherry and plum blossoms are blooming all around. Why is this imagery so deeply ingrained in the Asian aesthetic, and why has it persisted as an icon throughout the centuries?

The cherry blossom, known as ‘Sakura’ in Japanese, is the national symbol of Japan. It represents the loyalty and patriotism of the country’s citizens. Businesses of all sorts use the cherry blossom as a logo, and national currency bears the mark of the sakura. Cherry blossoms are also known for their ephemeral quality – after all, each tree’s flowers last only a few days during the year. This innocent fragility prompts people to anticipate and celebrate their arrival during the months of March and April.

Cherry blossoms have also been symbolically linked to samurais. They are connected by a short life span, and their impermanent status is revered and respected. Samurais often wore clothes emblazoned with cherry blossom patterns; the strong and fierce warriors felt a strong connection to the delicate blooms. The clothing they wore reinforced their nationalistic pride, and served as a note of loyalty.

The annual Cherry Blossom Festival begins in late March and ends during the first weeks of April in most areas. As the season for blossoms grows closer, forecasters cover the arrival dates around the country on news telecasts. During the festival, cherry trees everywhere bear soft pink and white blossoms. Crowds gather in parks across the country to admire the beautiful trees while they last. Trees in the Southern parts of Japan bloom first, and as the season continues the “cherry blossom front” moves North to Hokkaido.

Yo no naka ni
Taete sakura no
nakariseba
Haru no kokoro wa
Nodoke karamashi

If there were no
cherry blossoms
in this world
How much more tranquil
our hearts would be in spring.
( Ariwara no Narihira, Kokinshuu )

This poem hints at the excitement this time of year brings to Japanese culture. When the blossoms finally bloom, a celebration is in order – it is a time of joy, good economy, and a path to the future. The festival coordinates with the beginning of the Japanese fiscal calendar, as well as the commencement of the new school season. Children and adults alike see this as a time for new beginnings. As the blossoms fall, still bright and lush, people feel the warmer months ahead. People gather as early as 10AM in huge crowds under the cherry trees. Businessmen join friends and family for lunchtime picnics. Small music venues are often set up, as the season calls for relaxation and fun. Some people prefer to avoid the crowds, and instead visit the public parks during the earlier hours of the morning. Here they can quietly contemplate the blossoms. The trees represent a vitality and camaraderie among the citizens of Japan, and everyone seems to be able to agree on their beauty.

The Cherry Blossom Festival, commonly called Hanami, began several centuries ago. At one time people focused on peach blossoms, but during the 10th Century the cherry tree reigned supreme. Its popularity has never ceased, and its cultural importance has become deeply ingrained in Japanese culture. Historical documents contain numerous references to the cherry blossom and its seasonal celebration.

In 1912, Japanese representatives brought 1,600 cherry trees to Washington, D.C. as a gift. Americans welcomed the stunning plants, and decided to follow in Japan’s festival tradition. Now, cherry trees grow across the entire country, and Hanami festivals have cropped up in many metropolitan cities. While the Japanese celebration is fairly straightforward – eat, drink, and admire the beautiful blossoms while they last - many cities choose to include additional cultural events. The annual gathering in Washington, D.C. has been well attended for 92 years. The city aims to educate visitors about Japanese culture through performances by taiko drummers, art exhibits, food vendors, and a parade. Similar celebrations in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Pasadena also feature traditional dance concerts and craft sessions. Check your local listings for Hanami celebrations and become a part of the tradition!

Over 400 varieties of cherry trees exist in Japan alone, and many can be seen growing wild in the countryside. The most popular varieties are planted in public areas such as parks and schoolyards. The Japanese Cherry, known by horticulturalists as prunus pseudocerasus, does not bear edible fruit like its European cousins. However, it is more than just a thing of beauty. Cherry wood has a very fine grain and a rich, dark color, and it is used in quality furniture. In past centuries, the lumber was used for woodblock prints and type settings as well.

The first blossoms of the season have a single set of petals, but the tree’s second blooms have twice as many. Clustering together in multitudes on otherwise bare branches, the blossoms create a striking display of pink and white amid green park surroundings or grayer urban landscapes. The petals fall like snow and litter surrounding gardens and paths.

Cherry blossoms are also included as a culinary delicacy. The petals are salt-dried and included in tea for special occasions. Traditional teas are not served during weddings because it is believed to be bad luck, and instead a special cherry blossom brew is made. Its aroma and mild flavor imbue the new couple with good luck and fortune. Sakura mochi is another treat created from the cherry tree. This dumpling is filled with bean paste made from azuki, or red, beans and is secured with a cherry leaf wrapper. The well-dressed dessert is a favorite among all generations.

Many fruit blossoms appear around the same time of year, but each carries its own significance. Though the cherry holds the most important cultural symbolism, the plum tree must not be overlooked. Like the cherry blossom, it is delicate and lightly colored – blossoms range from white to dark pink. It has three sets of stamens and five petals. The Republic of China uses the plum blossom as a national symbol, employing its form to represent tenets of the country’s principals.

The plum blossom, according to ikebana (flower arranging) experts, represents happiness and womanhood. It signals the beginning of spring as it appears through snowy lands. Plum blossoms are used widely in ikebana due to their strong symbolism and timeless beauty.

In Japanese ikebana, plum branches can shift in symbolic meaning depending on placement and context within an arrangement. For instance, wedding displays are a combination of pine branches, a symbol of the male, and blossoming plum branches, which represent the female. Bamboo is also added to represent straightforwardness and resiliency – elements essential to married life. The perfect balance of these natural elements creates a harmony beneficial to the newlyweds. Despite their different symbolism, the cherry and plum blossoms may look very similar to some people. How can we distinguish between them? Cherry blossoms are smaller and more clustered on tree branches, and they have a very faint scent. When in bloom, the entire tree is weighed down by the masses of pink flowers. Plum blossoms are larger and are more spaced out along the tree’s branches. They have a very strong, intoxicating scent. Cherry blossoms range in color from a light pinkish white to a light pink, while plums are generally either stark white or a rich pink. Some are almost red! Each plant has dozens of different breeds, so keep your eyes open for the varying blooms during springtime.

Now that you have learned more about the beauty and significance of plum and cherry blossoms, why not infuse your home with their magic? We have tableware, tea sets and gifts to suit every budget – celebrate their magical appearance throughout the year.

  OUR 2004 NEWSLETTERS

Holiday Shopping Guide for Men

Holiday Shopping Guide for Women

Flowers in the Sky – Cherry and Plum Blossoms in Asian Culture

Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia II

Travel to Asia: Southeast Asia I

Travel to Asia: Korea

Travel to Asia: Taiwan

Travel to Asia: Japan

Travel to Asia: China, Part II

Travel to Asia: China

1,000 Cranes in Asian Culture and Art

Chinese New Year

Cookware for Your Asian-Style Kitchen

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MAY WE SUGGEST:

Plum Blossom Sake Set For Two (S119)

Cherry Blossom II Yixing Teapot (T1242)

Cherry Blossom Pink Sauce Dish (10021)

Cherry Blossom Red Chopsticks (10367)

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