April is the month when Kyoto truly shows off its colors. The entire region is aflutter with cherry blossom festivities, and visitors pour in from all over Japan to view the subtle variations and attractions at all the famous sites. The Somei Yoshino cherry blossom blooms along the Tetsugaku no Michi – the Philosopher’s Walk, as well as alongside the river Kamogawa and the canal adjoining Lake Biwa. At the Heian Jingu shrine the cherry blossoms are of the variety Benishidare, Ninnaji and Bokusenji temples each boast their own respective varieties, Omuro- and Usuzumi-sakura. It’s a beauty competition wherein the selection overwhelms.
It is again the aristocracy of the Heian era, just about one thousand years ago that is said to be responsible for today’s ubiquitous and fervent observation of cherry blossoms; but in fact farmers had practiced hanami, tree-watching since time immemorial as a means of divining the season to come from their animistic world view, and foretelling the harvest to be reaped. The word sakura means “cherry blossom”. The etymology of the word breaks down to sa, which represents the spirit inhabiting the rice stalk, and kura, the “throne of the divine”. Thus, the sight of the cherry blossom was viewed as welcoming in the spirit of the rice, the presence of which portended prosperity and good fortune in the form of the Earth’s great bounty.
Cherry blossoms vary in both color and shape, ranging from white to pale scarlet, and sporting two or five petals per blossom. Beginning at the end of March, the Somei Yoshino type appear across the city, but in Maruyama Park one finds the “Weeping Cherry”, the Shidare-zakura. A month later you’ll see the Omuro-zakura arriving at the edges of town, and soon after the blossoms begin to appear on the mountain known as Kitayama. It is as if the spirit of the cherry blossom joins a gradual procession from the center of town to the outskirts, and up along the mountainsides.