Cherry Blossoms in Literature and Art

We’ve already elaborated on the origins of hanami and shared how to have your very own Japanese party for viewing cherry blossoms. Now let us dig a little deeper and explore some of the art forms that prominently feature these tiny pinkish-white flowers and their enchanted onlookers.
Cherry Blossom Viewing on the Hill of Tenjin Shrine in Yasui by Hiroshige Utagawa, 1834 – People enjoy viewing cherry blossoms with music, dance, food, and sake
Cherry blossoms, or sakura in Japanese, last for just a few days in full bloom before withering and falling to the ground,  raining white petals all across Japan. On the one hand, the flowers are celebrated as heralds of spring and nature’s revival after the cold winter. On the other, their transience has a melancholy element, which elevates them to a “painful” sort of beauty. This translates well into the Japanese philosophy of mono no aware, an expression often clumsily translated into English as “the pathos of things”. These contradicting aspects of the sakura season have long been food for thought influencing exceptional Japanese literature and art.
The way the Japanese revere the cherry blossom borders on worship.  People flock to parks, river banks, and temples, in the millions, to practice hanami, accompanied by snacks and drinks. As early as in the Heian period (794-1185), this practice was common to members of the imperial court. Aristocrats would gather in the imperial gardens underneath the cherry trees. There they drank warmed sake, got drunk on the beauty of the scenery, and composed poems. The courtier and poet Ariwara no Narihira(825-880) wrote the following wakaabout cherry blossom viewing:
 | 世の中にたえて桜のなかりせば春の心はのどけからまし | Yo no naka nitaete sakura nonakarisebaharu no kokoro wanodokekara mashi | If cherry blossomsOne day ceased to existIn this world of ours,Perhaps our hearts in springMay know some tranquility.
Ukiyo-e painting from The Tale of Genji: Hana no En, Under the Cherry Blossoms by Kunisada, 1852
The first time, however, “hanami” was used synonymously for cherry blossom viewing was in the novel The Tale of Genji, written by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu and published in the year 1008. This novel sparked a trend and from then on, the word was used solely in reference to the viewing of cherry blossoms. Over the course of several hundred years, the tradition spread, out of the imperial court to the common people. In his Tsurezuregusa (Essays in Idleness), the 14th-century priest and author Yoshida Kenko laments that “rustic boors [...] take all pleasure grossly. They squirm their way through the crowd to get under the trees; they stare at the blossoms with eyes for nothing else; they drink sake and compose linked verse; and finally they breathlessly break off great branches and cart them away.”
Chiyoda Ooku Hanami (Hanami in the women's quarters of the Imperial Palace in Edo/Tokyo), ukiyo-e triptych by Toyohara Chikanobu, 1894
When ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese woodblock prints, became popular in the 17th century, seasonal pictures became all the rage. Sakura, as well as hanami, played a prominent part in them. Great masters like Hiroshige and Kunisada Utagawa brought the playful spirit of hanami to paper. Beautiful spring landscapes full of cherry trees and plum blossoms came into people’s homes.
The Plum Orchard in Kameido by Hiroshige Utagawa, 1857
Flowering Plum Tree after Hiroshige by Vincent van Gogh, 1887
At the end of the 19th century, Japan opened its gates to the outside world after its long seclusion during the Edo period (ca 1600-1868). Woodblock prints traveled across the seas and ended up in Europe and the United States. There, they inspired artists to create works imbued with Japanese aesthetics. One example of this genre called “Japonism” is Dutch Vincent Van Gogh’s 1887 copy of Hiroshige Utagawa’s Flowering Plum Tree (if you remember, plums were the original hanami tree). Another example is the painting Cherry Blossoms by American painter Bertha Lum, from the year 1912.
Cherry Blossoms by Bertha Lum, 1912 – Digital file from original print by the Library of Congress
Poetry about the viewing of cherry blossoms began to thrive outside of Japan and is still very present in Japanese poetry clubs around the world. American poet and professor of writing Toi Derricotte (1941-) somewhat recently published The Undertaker's Daughter (2011), a collection of poems. We leave with the following piece from the collection titled "Cherry Blossoms":
I went down tomingle my breathwith the breathof the cherry blossoms.There were photographers:Mothers arranging theirchildren againstgnarled old trees;a couple, hugging,asks a passerbyto snap themlike that,so that their lovewill always be caughtbetween two friendships:ours & the friendshipof the cherry trees.Oh Cherry,why can’t my poemsbe as beautiful?A young woman in a fur-trimmedcoat sets a card tablewith linens, candles,a picnic basket & wine.A father tipsa boy’s wheelchair backso he can gazeup at a branchedheaven.All around usthe blossomsflurry downwhispering,Be patientyou have an ancient beauty.Be patient,you have an ancient beauty.

Want to Know More? Explore Japan's Hanami Destinations and History in Odigo


Jennifer Weiss