Friday, March 30, 2012

Cherry Blossoms: A Sign of Optimism and Spring

The world renowned cherry tree and its pink sakura blossoms are eagerly awaited by the nation every spring. Japan's meteorological agency shows where in the nation sakura has started blossoming and it is reported on the news daily. Smartphone apps have even been developed to track the sakura zensen, or cherry-blossom opening. Once the flowers have are in bloom, they are admired and enjoyed in the annual rite of spring, or hanami. During hanami, it is traditional to have a picnic and party under the blossoming trees. In addition to being beautiful to look at, the trees provide various other functions as well. Cherry wood can be used as lumber. The tough, flexible bark is cut into thin strips, which can be used to make baskets or to decorate wooden implements, such as magewappa, or bentwood boxes. The bark can also be used as dye for cloth, or even boiled to produce a medicinal elixir, thought to be good for the throat and respiratory system. 

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The leaves and flowers are also preserved in salt and eaten. The preserved flowers and leaves signify spring with their fragrant, salty-sour taste.The best edible leaves come from the Oshima-zakura, because of the juicy, fragrant foliage. The salt-preserved cherry flowers are generally made with deeper, pink multi-petaled Yae-zakura blossoms. The majority of domestic preserved sakura leaves come from the southern half of the Izu Peninsula, though the cheaper leaves are imported from China. 

Until recently, the primary use for the preserved flowers was in sakura-yu, a type of tea made by floating two blossoms in plain, hot water. The faintly pink tea has a slightly salty, slightly sour taste that provides a unique change from the traditional green tea. Sakura-yu has been the tea traditionally served at omiai, or arranged meetings between potential marriage partners, as well as at weddings and receptions. The reason for this is because the tea is clear and unclouded, which is thought to represent a healthy marriage. 

Today, the main use for the preserved leaves is as edible wrappers for sakura-mochi, which is a traditional sweet, only available in early to mid spring. Due to its immense popularity, several variations of sakura-mochi exist. The most common variation if soft mochi, pounded rice cake, filled with koshian, a smooth, sweet adzuki bean paste, with two sakura leaves wrapped around the entire thing.

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The cherry blossoms provide many more uses and are very much appreciated by the Japanese, as well as many other cultures around the world.  

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