Space, time and flowers

As Spring unfolds in the northern hemisphere the cherry trees are blossoming  in Japan. In 2017 the Sakura season officially began on March 21st and overall will last a few short weeks. Reports from friends capture the thrill of seeing the first blossoms appear in different parts of the country.  Timing is of the essence as the best viewing period can last for a little over a week at a specific location. This post celebrates the blossoming of the Sakura, seasonal changes and introduces the six great elements as viewed through the lens of Ikebana. Space, time and flowers – another dimension of elemental Japan.

The Sakura blossoms symbolise the importance of the four seasons in Japan, the beginning of Spring (Gregorian style) and the ephemeral nature of life. They also reflect changes in the elements in space and time. The 3008 km long Japanese archipelago sets the scene for a moving visual feast of beautiful blossoms that express themselves in sequence from the south-east to the north-west. Changes in temperature are the main driver of this broad pattern, with local variations.


Forecasts are used to indicate the best times to view cherry blossoms in Japan (source: Many tourists flock to the country to experience the beauty and fleeting nature of the Sakura trees in bloom. Accurate predictions are therefore very important. With wind, rain, temperature, topography and tree variety affecting the timing of flowering, predictions however can only go so far.  For example, 2017 has seen some unusual patterns like blossoms appearing in Tokyo in central Honshu earlier than in Fukoaka in south-eastern Kyushu. Such variation is to be expected with the elements at play.

It is delightful that these soft, delicate flowers can attract so much attention and admiration. The awe and wonder the Sakura blossoms are held in finds expression in many art forms in Japan – from paintings and confectionary, to fabrics and tea bowls.

A Google search of ‘Sakura ceramic Japan’ gives an inkling of the popularity of the cherry blossom image in the art and craft of Japan. While the flowers themselves only last for a brief period, their representations extend the essence of Spring. Similar patterns in space and time (and imagery) exists for other seasons, with lotus flowers and hydrangea taking central stage in summer and the vibrant colour of leaves in Autumn.

The current focus on the four seasons in Japan builds on more detailed divisions of 24 major seasons and 72 microseasons used in ancient times. These frequent observations indicate an intimate understanding of natural phenomenon, including the elements.

The App ’72 Seasons’ is the first of it’s kind to make the 72 microseasons of Japan, which last around five days or so each, widely accessible in the age of the Internet. Flowers and plants feature prominently in the descriptions of the microseasons  (Source: It would be interesting to see these shorter seasons mapped geographically similar to the distribution of cherry blossoms. Modern spatial technologies would assist with such representations in both space and time.

A few years prior to the App being released, Liza Dalby drew on the 72 microseasons for the structure for her book ‘East Wind Melts the Ice: a Memoir through the Seasons’. As noted by the publisher, the 72 chapters transport the reader between Japan, California and China, weaving Dalby’s memories of living in Japan (and becoming the first and only non-Japanese geisha), her observations on the recurring phenomena of the natural world, and meditations on the cultural aesthetics of the 3 countries captured in the book. I really like the idea of taking notice of changes in the world of nature at this time scale.

The Japanese art of Ikebana represents another connection between flowers and the elements in Japan. In this case the flowers represent the elements in space at one point in time. The book ‘Heaven and Earth are Flowers – Reflections on Ikebana and Buddhism‘ (Stamm 2010) discusses the six great elements of earth, air, fire, water, space and consciousness in the context of selecting and arranging flowers Japanese style.

The formal Shogonka style of Ikebana reflects the esoteric Rokudai (six great elements) philosophy. The arrangement illustrated here refers to knowledge rather than conciousness as the sixth element. The style developed out of religious ceremonies. It is described as a floral form of the highest standing from the ancient floral offerings to Buddha. The image and description were discovered in a 1971 publication titled ‘Flower Arrangement. Quick & Easy‘. My sense is that it would take a high level of skill and much practice (time) to recreate such an arrangement. ‘Quick and easy’ may not be the best descriptors here!

The cherry blossom season, and associated viewing parties (hanami), have been described as one of the most remarkable natural events in Japan. It would have to be high on the list and certainly generates intense interest for Japanese people and visitors alike. The short period available for viewing focuses both attention and activities. In 2018 I was fortunate to experience a hanami in Kyoto with my sister Ruth and see Sakura in many places. In general flowers are valued highly in Japan. To appreciate and experience their beauty to the fullest, space, time and the elements are an important part of the story.

In December 2017 I came across another blog post about flowers and time in Japan, in this case in relation to the work ‘Shobogenzo‘ by Dogen, a major figure in the history of Soto Zen Buddhism. This is the quote from the post ‘Time of flower‘.

A tall bamboo is long. Although it is moved by yin and yang, the months and years of the tall bamboo move yin and yang.

––– Painting a Rice Cake, Shobogenzo.

The quote and related blog provides much food for thought, especially as Yinyang is intimately related to the five Chinese elements/phases. Dogen also wrote about the Buddhist ‘great’ elements. Reference to both Chinese and Indian (Buddhist) elements is a pattern that I’m increasingly discovering in elemental Japan.

Postscript: The day I published this post my sister Ruth and I had lunch at a cafe in Melbourne called ‘Lentil as Anything’. To our surprise there were cherry blossoms and references to Japan throughout the establishment, starting with the sign outside. I saw these sightings as a symbol of the universal appeal of these fleeting flowers.

The sign outside ‘Lentil as Anything’ in Thornbury, Melbourne seen on April 10, 2017. The poem by Shiki evokes the ephemeral nature of the cherry blossoms. He is regarded as a major figure in the development of modern Haiku poetry. Seeing so many cherry blossoms in the cafe was a pleasant surprise as we are heading into Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and I had just published a post about them that morning! Serendipity in action.

2 thoughts on “Space, time and flowers

  1. I have learnt so many news things from your post, Jann. I did not know that the appearance of the cherry blossoms across the length of the island was so closely mapped. Or that there are 72 observed micro seasons. Or that the design premise behind Ikebana is based on the elements. This is all very interesting. The images of the different styles of pottery which bear the cherry blossom pattern are so pretty! Thanks again for sharing.


    • I’m glad that you learnt a little from the post. Japan is such an interesting place. I would love to see the cherry blossoms in Yoshino, over space and time. Over 30,000 trees have been planted there as I understand it. Yoshino is a hilly area and the blossoms move up the mountains over time. So multiple trips would be needed for the full experience. The cherry blossoms there have been a draw-card for hundreds of years, even for the shogun. There is definitely more to those delicate flowers than meets the eye. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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