Blooming connections: Jackson Park’s Sakura cherry blossom trees bridge the city to Japan’s cultural roots
April 30, 2023
Pink and white hues color the skies of Chicago’s Jackson Park in late April, as over 190 budding Sakura cherry blossom trees sprawl over green grass in the Hyde Park neighborhood, symbolizing the long-awaited end of winter and the beginning of warm weather.
In the Midwest, long winters mean a delay in blossoming: The current status of blossoms is past stage 6, meaning that many blossoms either will not open or are already fully open because of the erratic spring fluctuation in weather and temperature, according to the Chicago Park District.
“The fact that it’s still kind of cold is okay because that’s spring in the Midwest,” Lincoln Square resident Abby said. “These trees are like the robins of spring.”
Between 2013 and 2016, the nonprofit group, Project 120 and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago (JCCC) planted 190 trees in Jackson Park to mark the 120th anniversary of the Chicago World’s Fair and the 50th anniversary of JCCC’s founding in 1966. Chicago’s connection with Japan dates back to 1893; Japan was one of the first foreign supporters of the World’s Columbian Exposition construction of the Japanese Pavilion contributing around $600,000.
In the U.S., Washington D.C. often takes recognition for its collection of cherry blossom trees arrayed throughout the city.
“It’s kind of a nice touch of Washington D.C. here in Chicago,” Bucktown resident Karen said. “It bothers me that so few people know about it.”
In Japanese culture, Sakura trees are a sign of beginning and a sign of joy and hope, marking the beginning of the school year for students.
Growing up in the west side of Japan, DePaul Japanese program director Nobuko Chikamatsu remembers taking school photos in front of cherry blossom trees and eating Sakura mochi.
“It’s the beginning of life, beginning of the season, beginning of the harvest,” Chikamatsu said. “I think it’s one of the customs that has not changed much, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so popular.”
In Japan, because of the diverse landscape, the bloom can happen throughout the country from as early as March until early May. The Hanami, or observation of the cherry blossoming, dates back to the 8th century. It became a fundamental tradition in the Imperial Court of Kyoto, only viewed by the royals. Through the Edo period beginning in 1603, the rise of military dictatorship and samurais spread Hanami to all of the people of Japan.
“By the time of the 17th Century, it was everyone,” Chikamatsu said. “It’s everywhere, everyone can enjoy it.”
During World War II, Sakura trees became a popular image of nationalism as propaganda. Japanese soldiers were regularly compared to cherry blossoms symbolizing “their short and glorious lives.” Woodblock prints and paintings have been an important preservation of the history of cherry blossoms as art became popular in the early 19th century.
The blooming marked the rice-planting season.
“Japan is an agricultural society, so you have to pay attention to the weather, paying attention to the nature, the change of the season,” Chikamatsu said. “It is important to survive.”
Worshiping the natural world is especially important in the Shinto religion. Buddhist and Shinto temples often have cherry trees and host viewings connecting their spirituality to the mountains, trees and environment around them.
“Worshiping nature is closely related to enjoying nature,” Chikamatsu said. “I think people may feel that the cherry blossoms are where god exists.”
The business of cherry blossoms adds to the globalization of the tree throughout the world. Starbucks Frappuccinos, McDonald’s cherry blossom pies and La Croix cherry blossom flavored waters can be found at the grocery store.
“The entire country switches into the mode of cherry blossoms,” Chikamatsu said.
The Jackson Park cherry blossoms are still available for viewing. Peak blooming lasts anywhere from 6 to 14 days.