Experts try to guess when sakura season will start, and are killed for failure. No pressure!


Yessirree, we're comin' right up on hanami, that most beloved time of year, when the cherry blossoms herald the onset of spring, millions of Japanese are getting smashed in public picnics beneath the flowery branches, and artistically rendered petals punctuate dramatic moments in hundreds of schoolgirls' lives. In big chunks of the country, it's also the start of the school and financial year, which adds another layer of potential poetic interpretation to the whole "ephemeral beauty" thing. (The blooming ends after a couple of weeks, tops.) Hit the jump for a bit more info on this gorgeous spring ritual, i.e. why predicting its onset wrongly will make the whole country hate you. (If they are killed for it, though, no one tells us about it. They just suck.)

Like pretty much every awesome Japanese thing more than a millennium old, flower-viewing got its start from Chinese influence back in the Nara period, which was most of the 700s A.D. Ume (plum) trees used to get the most attention, but by the Heian period (ending in 1185), sakura reigned, and any time you see "flowers" used in any old poems, haiku, graffiti, etc., you know they mean cherry blossoms. In line with Shinto tradition and the worship of nature spirits - kami - people would pray for good harvests, make offerings to the trees, and then cap it off by eating the offerings and chugging sake. (What? Tree spirits can't eat.) One thing led to another, and now the religious part and samurai-only participation have been excised in favor of letting everyone have a sort of undeclared national holiday in the parks.

Besides its historical, emotional and aesthetic value, though, flower-viewing translates into big business for Japanese stores - plates, beer and bento at the very least - and they have to know when to stock up. For the average person, it's good to know when to undergo the hassle of getting all your friends together to have drinking contests in the great outdoors, so it's extremely srs bizness for the Japan Meteorological Agency to get it right. Last year, they effed up pretty badly and had to publicly apologize when a new supercomputer had a glitch or something, and they told everyone the wrong date. Now they're back to watching for actual blossoms on a special sample tree in the shrine of Yasukuni, right in Tokyo.

The Japanese are huge on nature, as evidenced by the fact that the agency also watches 11 other plants and 11 birds/insects (fireflies, swallows, plums amongst them). But sakura are really special; Tomomi Kurita, who headed up the team that determined their announcement this year, just last Saturday, still gets choked up about it:

"For many people in Japan, this time of year marks a time for change like graduating from school and starting a fresh year at a new place. [...] For such a sentimental time, cherry trees which almost looked dead a little while ago but are fully in bloom all at once are really impressive.

"It is a way to learn a transition from one season to another," he said, adding: "And people party."

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Aoi   gamer profile

'Ello, luvs. I be a sometime editor o' Jtor, dependent on my school and work schedule. Thanks for reading! Remember, the first one's free. more + disclosures



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