Although plum blossoms used to be all the rage in ancient Japan, cherry blossoms took over around the Heian period (794–1185) and became the phenomenon they are today. Cherry blossom history in Japan is well documented in poetry and art, showing our endearing similarity to people from the past, all of us enamored with the blossoms.

Every year we try to predict the blooming times. And every year we are caught off guard by the full bloom, and soon after the rivers and gutters are full of petals. We share that mono no aware feeling (bittersweet awareness of the impermanence of things) and we try to stop and appreciate the fleeting moments.

cherry blossom history

Yasukuni Shrine, 1883 – by Inoue Yasuji.  The index sakura tree for Tokyo is in Yasukuni Shrine, and when it blooms the cherry blossom season is officially pronounced open.

We take countless photos in an effort to keep the short-lived cherry blossoms longer, while in the past the best option was etching ukiyo-e woodblock prints with cherry blossoms and hanami. We made a selection of ukiyo-e depictions of cherry blossoms throughout Japan’s history in both Kyoto and Edo, as well as a few early photographs from the early 20th century.

Cherry Blossoms in Ukiyo-E Woodblock Prints

Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto

Utagawa Yoshitora cherry blossoms from the past cherry blossom history

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 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, albeit mostly for the nobility. Commoners joined in the cultural practice by the Edo period (1603-1868). People would often drink, eat, read poetry and sing songs under the cherry blossoms. It’s not unlike a cherry blossom picnic one might see nowadays in Yoyogi Park for instance.

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 in Japan cultivate a deep appreciation for nature, whether it’s landscaping beautiful gardens or protecting ancient trees as deities. Very often there are plum or cherry blossom trees in places of worship in Japan, as well as cemeteries.

Utagawa Hiroshige sumidagawa ukio e cherry blossom history

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.

Cherry Blossoms in Old Photographs

After the Edo period, came the Meiji period of modernization. Photography was a big novelty in the early 20th century and some of the early photos try to capture cherry blossom season in Japan. Some of the photos were 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

From 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 the Arakawa River

cherry trees at Arakawa

From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

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