TOPArt & CultureJapan’s Cherry Blossoms Through the Ages

Japan’s Cherry Blossoms Through the Ages

A glimpse into Japan's cherry blossom history through ukiyo-e prints and photographs

By Zoria Petkoska

Every year we try and predict the time when cherry blossoms will bloom exactly. The Japan Meteorological Agency has it down to a science (with an admitted margin of error), scientists are inspecting the buds well in advance and designated index sakura trees are checked meticulously. The index sakura tree for Tokyo is in Yasukuni Shrine, and when it blooms the cherry blossom season is officially pronounced open.

Inoue Yasuji
Yasukuni Shrine, 1883 – by Inoue Yasuji

And every year we are caught off guard by the full bloom, and soon after the rivers and gutters are full of petals. So, this is what that mono no aware feeling (bittersweet awareness of the impermanence of things) feels like. Judging by the haiku and tanka poetry of the past, it’s a feeling we share with people who lived centuries before us.

What we also have in common with people of the past are the hanami picnics and cherry blossom admiration. Yes, you might be sipping a sakura latte, instead of sake, but let’s not dwell on the differences. We take photos in an effort to keep the short-lived cherry blossoms longer and Japanese artists in the past were etching ukiyo-e woodblock prints with sakura and hanami. Here is a selection of those:

Cherry Blossoms in Ukiyo-E Woodblock Prints

From Edo (Tokyo)

Toyohara Chikanobu Title-Enjoying the Cherry Blossoms at Koganei (Koganei sakura goyûran zu) Date-1886 Details-

Enjoying the Cherry Blossoms at Koganei (1886) by Toyohara Chikanobu

A lavish hanami picnic has been the norm ever since the Heian period (from 794 to 1185), with most commoners joining in the cultural practice by the Edo period (from 1603 to 1868). Often people read poetry and sang songs under the cherry blossoms.

Utagawa Kunisato Title-Viewing Cherry Blossoms in the Inner Precincts of the Temple at Asakusa

Viewing Cherry Blossoms in the Inner Precincts of the Temple at Asakusa (1857) by Utagawa Kunisato

Temples and shrines have always had a bond with cultivating gardens and planting and caring for trees. Naturally, to this day, there are cherry trees around places of worship, as well as cemeteries.

Utagawa Hiroshige sumidagawa ukio e

Cherry Trees in Rain on the Sumida River Embankment (1835-39), from the series Famous Places in the Eastern Capital, by Utagawa Hiroshige

Left: Cherry Blossoms in a Palace Garden in the Modern Style, by Kikugawa Eizan.
Right: Cherry Trees on the Banks of the Sumida River (1792) by Torii Kiyonaga.

From Kyoto

Utagawa Yoshitora cherry blossoms from the past

Very Famous Places Visited by Genji: Cherry Blossoms at Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto (1875) by Utagawa Yoshitora

Chion-in Temple (Jizuri)

Chion-in Temple in Kyoto (1935) by Yoshida Hiroshi

Cherry Blossoms in Old Photographs

After the Edo Period, came the Meiji Period of modernization and photography was the big novelty in the early 20th century. Photos were sometimes hand-colored at the time, while some are digitally colorized today to better illustrate the time the photo was taken.

Cherry blossoms in Ueno, postcard from 1900-1906

ueno park sakura
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Cherry blossoms in Ueno, postcard from 1915-1930

old photo cherry blossoms in ueno
From New York Public Library, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection

Cherry blossoms at Arakawa River

cherry trees at Arakawa
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

All ukiyo-e images are from the open-source Ukiyo-e.org database unless indicated otherwise. All photographs’ sources are credited in the captions. 

Featured and top image: Holiday of Cherry Blossoms at Naka-no-chô in the Yoshiwara, from the series Famous Places in Edo (1840-58) by Utagawa Hiroshige


Want to explore cherry blossoms without the crowds? Here are some tips:

Alternative Cherry Blossom Viewing Ideas in Tokyo