In Japan, cherry blossoms are praised for more than just the arrival of spring. Also known as sakura, cherry blossoms are symbolic of the beauty and mortality of life, paired with optimism of a fresh start.
As my father has always been so passionate about photography, we have so many photos that captured our family memories all year around. Sakura appeared in the background of many of our spring photos. Such as my entrance ceremony for grade school, junior high school, and high school. Family picnics under cherry blossom trees. And walking my little Japanese Shiba dog, Chibi, in a rice field.
With the sakura season representing a fresh start, it's appropriate that April marks the beginning of the Japanese fiscal and school year, unlike the American school year beginning in the fall.
Photos by Makoto Tanaka
Sakura Forecast and Hanami
Sakura blossoms start budding mid to late March in some regions, and as late as May in other regions. The blooms only last between one and two weeks, which echoes the fleeting nature of life. Since many events and customs revolve around the brief bloom period, there is a sakura forcast dedicated to sharing when blooming will begin in each region of Japan.
Once the cherry trees start to bloom, celebrations are had, day and night. These flower-viewing parties are called hanami and are a way to slow down while appreciating the cherry blossoms with family, friends, and colleagues. The best spots for Hanami are where you can surround yourself with the fully bloomed cherry trees, like city parks, gardens, and riverbanks. In order to save a spot for a picnic lunch, people will start arriving to the park early in the morning. Some companies send an employee out to reserve a spot for the rest of the company who will arrive after work.
No celebration is complete without food and drinks. We eat bento meals with various snacks and sweets, all while enjoying fresh air under the sakura. Bento box lunch is especially delicious when eaten under the cherry trees as a family picnic. My mother’s bento was the best. It always had three kids’ favorites: Karaage (Japanese fried chicken), Ebi- fry (panko breaded fried shrimp), and Hambāgu (Japanese style hamburger steak). She also made Tamago-yaki (rolled omelet) and Onigiri (rice ball), which are the essential for a Japanese bento.
Backyard Cherry Harvest
I have so many memories through the years of sakura seasons, but my biggest memory is the big cherry tree that we had in the backyard. Most of the cherry trees that you enjoy for their flowers during hanami don’t bear fruit, but ours did! They were so sweet and tasty, and I was so excited about the coming of spring because that meant I got to eat our sweet cherries! I became popular among friends at school because I invited them to my house for cherry harvesting parties.
Each year when the tree started bearing fruit, the war between my father and the birds began. It’s not only humans who want to enjoy the ripened, juicy cherries. And birds are the ones who can spot the cherries first. As soon as my father detected the arrival of birds, he ran to the backyard to scare them off. It was comical how they fought each other, creating quite the spectacle for my mother, sister and I. He finally ended up covering the tree with a fine net as his strongest defense.
Sadly, my parents had to cut down the cherry tree when their house was expanded and my favorite tree is not there anymore. However, every spring, the memory of the tree comes back to me and warms my heart.
I have a weeping cherry tree in my backyard now but it is too small to eat bento underneath. When it grows big enough, I’d like to start our family hanami tradition.
Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival in Washington DC
If you’d like to enjoy a little bit of the Japanese cherry blossom traditions in the states, the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Festival held as a part of National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC would be a great event to go to. Washington DC is full of cherry trees that were gifted from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo in 1912 to honor friendship between the United States and Japan. More than 3,000 trees were gifted and planted!
San-J is pleased to support this event, marking our seventh year to participate. If you make it out, stop by to say hi and enjoy some tasty treats!
If you can't make it to Sakura Matsuri, try making your own Karaage to enjoy under a blossoming cherry tree.
Karaage (Japanese Fried Chicken)
2 lbs. Chicken thighs or breast, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 ½ Tablespoons Fresh ginger, grated
2 cloves Fresh garlic, grated
4 Tablespoons San-J Tamari Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Sake
2 Tablespoons Mirin
1 cup Potato starch or corn starch
Canola or vegetable oil (for frying)
Mix the ginger, garlic, San-J Tamari Soy Sauce, sake, and mirin in a large sealable container or bag. Add the chicken, mix to coat evenly. Seal and marinate the chicken for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Heat the frying oil to reach 360ºF.
Put the potato starch in a bowl. Add the marinated chicken in small batches, shaking off excess liquid, and tossing to coat each piece evenly.
Shake off excess starch and fry the chicken in batches until the surface is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. Place the fried chicken on a paper towel lined rack to remove excess oil and serve with lemon wedges.