Check out Japan's Cherry Blossoms

Japan’s iconic flower represents the beauty and brevity of life.

Every spring a tapestry of pink blooms blankets the island nation of Japan, starting in the south and crawling northward. Cherry blossom trees, or sakura, symbolise the evanescence of human life in Japanese culture—their blooms are both brilliant and brief.

In Tokyo, clouds of pink blot out the city's metallic skyscrapers and urban dwellers emerge from their homes and offices to take pause underneath the fleeting bloom. Scores of people gather in parks and gardens to celebrate the arrival of spring with daylong parties that stretch into the night.

“They serve as a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is,” says photographer Albert Bonsfills, who captured the exuberant spirit of hanami, one of Japan’s oldest and most revered traditions.

A young couple embraces underneath a flurry of pink blooms.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

Hanami, or flower viewing celebrations, date back to the 9th century when Japanese emperors held viewing parties with their courts. According to folklore, the mountain deity travelled to rice paddies on floating cherry blossom petals and nurtured the crop. Thus, a long bloom became synonymous with a fruitful harvest. Because of this relationship to rice—which sustained human life—the tree was regarded as sacred. They decorated the armour of samurai, were tucked into the elaborately folded hairstyles of geisha, and graced the scrolls of poets.

But the symbolism behind Japan’s most iconic flower is complex and mutable. As the country underwent internal and external transformation, the cherry blossom’s meaning also evolved.

A man pauses to watch twirling cherry blossom petals fall from the trees.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

Falling petals—once a quotidian symbol of birth, death, and rebirth—transformed into a nationalist icon during Japanese colonial expansion. In 1912, Japan gifted more than 3,000 cherry trees to the United States as a gesture of friendship and political alliance. They were planted along the Tidal Basin in Washington D.C., which now shares the yearly blossom-viewing tradition.

During World War II the flower was once again reborn as a military symbol. Tokkotai (kamikaze) pilots took to the skies with branches affixed to their uniforms and a single blossom painted on each side of their planes: A motif of their final flight and sacrifice to the emperor. Trees were planted at military shrines and throughout Japan—their falling petals a reminder of the fallen soldiers.

Today over 200 species of cherry blossom trees cloak the archipelago of Japan. Though they've carried different meanings throughout the ages, they continue to bring communities together year after year under a common one: to celebrate Japan's most beloved flower.

Cherry blossom trees are reflected in a pond at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

Falling petals dance through the air, signalling the end of cherry blossom season.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

Fallen petals blanket the ground in Inokashira Park, which is considered one of Tokyo's most precious green spaces.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

A security guard patrols Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The park's security monitors the area for smoking and alcoholic beverages, which are forbidden in the park.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

Girls lay down on their picnic blanket during a hanami celebration in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

A group of friends dance under the cherry blossom trees during a hanami party in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

A Chinese tourist poses among the cherry blossoms in Chidorigafuchi, a moat located north-west of the Tokyo Imperial Palace.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

A visitor pauses in front of a blooming tree in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

Pink petals blanket the surface of Inokashira Lake, Tokyo.
Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

Header Image: Thousands of people gather in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo, to picnic under blooming cherry blossom trees during Japan's annual flower-viewing celebration. Photograph by Albert Bonsfills

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