- Species: Sour cherry trees (prunus), Weeping cherry tree, (prunus pendula maxim), Crab Apple (malus halliana), Dwarf Crab Apple (malus micromalus)
- Location: Fukuoka Castle, Tenjin Central Park, Fukuoka Botanical Gardens; Fukuoka City, Japan
I am at a complete loss for words when it comes to Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms, or sakura, but I will try nevertheless to put together some thoughts that hopefully come close to doing those magical trees some kind of justice.
Anyone that has seen a cherry tree in bloom knows the beauty of the specie, especially when the entire canopy is blanketed by tiny white or pink flowers. The contrast of the darkly shaded trunks and branches against the white and pink flowers is both soothing and emotive, like Chinese and Japanese ink drawings or a work of the abstract expressionists. The cherry tree is truly one of nature’s own masterpieces, graceful in their delicate beauty, yet rustic and wild at its core.
There are cherry trees in many cities and regions now – in fact, I think Japan actually gifted 1.5 million cherry trees to the US at one time. In cities like Washington, Seattle, New York, Vancouver, Toronto, and many, many others, cherry blossoms have become a common sight in spring.
But in Japan, cherry trees are much more than just beautiful trees. They are elevated to a whole new level. Planted in groves, carefully arranged and nurtured, cherry trees and their blossoms are offered up as an experience, like a living sculpture garden.
In Japan, the sakura is a cultural phenomenon, a part of the national psych, at once mundane and mystical. Every year, crowds gathered under blooming cherry trees. Shops are set up to sell drinks and food, space is reserved under strategic areas under the trees in a traditional practice called ‘hanami,’ and television channels dedicate time slots to inform the population the best location to catch the blooms, complete with forecasts.
It’s one of those magical experiences that tops my list of things to do in this life. While I didn’t grow up in Japan, it’s hard not to feel the sense of nostalgia under a sakura, like memories of the first visit to an amusement park back in my youth in Canada, full of sweet snacks and soda pops, laughter and hopes, magic, strange lights and exotic sounds, fun and games. Except under a cherry trees, it is all that and more. It’s the last moments of a first date that you just didn’t want to end, perhaps the scent of your mother’s cooking, when the world was a less complicated place, full of wonder and surprise, promise and possibility.
Shaded by the graceful embrace of the overhanging branches of the cherry trees, it is easy to understand how one can let go of everyday worries, and take a journey back to another time, another place.
I was lucky enough to catch the sakura in the city of Fukuoka this year. By far the most spectacular location in the city for cherry blossoms was Fukuoka Castle. As soon as you arrive at the walkway leading to the castle, rows upon rows of cherry trees are waiting to greet you.
Then there is the view from the top of the castle wall, where a sea of pink and white seem to flow endlessly out to the city.
Tenjin Central Park
Another incredible spot for sakura is Tenjin Central Park, located in the heart of the city. Here the cherry trees line the two sides of a river, overarching the banks on either side. In full bloom, the trees transform the area into a true wonderland. There are plenty of visitors such as myself, but also many locals. There were families, office ladies, businessmen, students, elderly couples, tourists, walkers and strollers. Whether they were visiting the park or just passing through, there were very few that didn’t pause for moment for a closer look or a quick photo or two.
We also ended up visiting the Fukuoka Botanical Gardens, which had some pretty impressive trees, particular a couple of expansive individuals that provide a perfect hanami location under its wide canopy at the centre of the grounds.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the experience inside the Botanical Gardens wasn’t as awe-inspiring as the cherry trees at the castle and the park, which surprisingly were more natural and wild compared to the ones inside the garden dedicated to trees.
But on an educational level, the botanical garden was invaluable. While there weren’t rows upon rows of cherry trees, no doubt to make room for the abundance of other species that are on display, the individuals on display were definite eye-openers. Even to my untrained eye, it was easy to see the subtle differences of the different varieties of cherry trees.
To the best of my (limited) understanding, there are two main types of cherry trees – basic cherry tree (prunus) and weeping cherry trees (prunus pendula) – which also divulged into two colours, white and pink.
There are many sub-categories, such as the “nigrescens,” which appears to be the popular type that is prevalent in the Fukuoka region, as well as many others, like the “lannesiana wilson, var. speciosa makino.” Then there are the pink varietals.
Prunus are the classic varietals with stiff branches and wide canopies while the more stunning weeping cherries, such as this prunus pendula maxium, features long flowing limbs that sway in the wind.
There was also also this magnificent pink weeping cherry located just inside the entrance.
Another major revelation from the Botanical Gardens was that not all trees with cute pink blossoms are cherry trees. It turns out that crabapple trees (malus) also have quaint little flowers, albeit less numerous. Again, there are different sub-varietals – well at least two that I spotted, the standard “halliana koehne” and the “micromalus,” with smaller flowers. Obviously, crabapples are not cherry trees, but they are pretty enough all the same.