Celebrating Spring with Japanese Cherry Blossoms: A Brooklyn Tradition

May 08, 2013 at 3:07 pm

In Japanese culture, the cherry blossom, or sakura, is a cherished symbol of spring, fleeting beauty, and Japan itself. The short lifespan of the cherry blossom—each variety flowers for just seven to ten days—exemplifies the Japanese concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the ephemeral nature of all things. The brief, colorful life of the blossoms makes them a poignant symbol of mortality; as such, they frequently appear in Japanese art and literature. For centuries, the cherry blossom viewing season, called Hanami, has been celebrated with festivals, picnics, and decorations throughout Japan.

Since 1982, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has fêted their cherry blossom collection with Sakura Matsuri, a weekend festival showcasing both traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The festival is the nation’s largest annual event in a public garden and consistently draws one of the most diverse, elaborately costumed crowds in New York. This year’s festival took place on April 27th and 28th, and featured over 60 performances, exhibits, and demonstrations—from flower arranging seminars to cosplay fashion shows. Some performers traveled all the way from Japan, but many local groups—including the Brooklyn-based Taiko Masala drumming ensemble and the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of NY—also took the stage.

Although Washington DC’s cherry blossom festival is probably the nation’s most famous Hanami event, the New York metro area is home to several noteworthy cherry blossom collections. Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s collection is the most diverse in the nation, with over 200 trees and 42 cultivars of ornamental flowering cherries. Because each variety begins flowering on a different date, Brooklyn’s cherry blossom display is both beautiful and relatively long lasting. The garden’s cherry blossom trees were originally planted in 1921; several years earlier, in 1914–1915, Japanese landscape designer Takeo Shiota created Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, the first Japanese garden created in an American public garden.

Sakura Park in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights also features a historic collection of cherry trees. In 1912, Japan delivered a shipment of over 2,000 cherry trees to New York City, to be planted in Riverside and Sakura Parks. The City of Tokyo donated a Japanese stone lantern, or tori, to the park, in honor of the Tokyo-New York sister city affiliation. Crown Prince Akihito, current Emperor of Japan, and Princess Michiko attended the dedication of the lantern in 1960. The Crown Prince and Princess rededicated the lantern in 1987, in a ceremony hosted by Mayor Edward I. Koch.

Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ, boasts the largest collection of Japanese cherry blossom trees at one location in the US—over 4,000. The New York Botanical Garden, Queens Botanical Garden, and Randall’s Island Park also house impressive cherry blossom collections. Pending seasonal weather, cherry blossoms in New York can flower through mid-May. If you are planning a visit to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, you can check the exact status of its blossoms on its CherryWatch Map, updated daily.