A short-lived pink flower and its ability to inspire the soul has fascinated Japan for centuries, writes Mabel Sieh
Every nation has a tradition which connects deeply with its soul and is passed down through generations for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Japan's Cherry Blossom Festival is one of the oldest and most loved celebrations in the country. During the festival, locals and visitors from around the world gather at parks and other locations to look at the beautiful cherry blossoms - or sakura in Japanese.
Viewing the cherry blossoms is called hanami in Japanese. The custom dates back many centuries: records show festivals were held as early as the third century. In the old days, poets and aristocrats would see the beautiful sakura and be inspired to write.
Hanami usually takes place in March because in Japan everything begins on April 1 - be it a new school term or a financial year.
It is such an important event the Japan Weather Association will issue flowering forecasts.
The information can also be found on websites and in magazines. Some even provide maps with viewing locations.
Sakura flower at different times throughout the year in Japan. The flowers begin blooming in January in Okinawa and are at their peak from late March to April on the island Honshu, where Tokyo and Kyoto are. In Hokkaido, the peak will be in May.
Yukiko Ohira, 29, lives in Tokyo and works in the fashion industry. She has already planned a few parties under cherry trees with her friends. 'It's like a new beginning... after the cold, long winter, when we reflect and review the previous year,' Ohira says. 'I also like taking walks around the city, looking for all the signs of spring.'
Unlike the Lunar New Year festival, cherry blossom viewing is not a family event, but a time for friends and co-workers to get together and celebrate, says Dr Yoshiko Nakano, an assistant professor at the Department of Japanese Studies at the University of Hong Kong.
Finding a good spot to view the blossoms is a highly completive activity, she says. 'Some companies release their staff early to secure a spot for the team,' she said.
There are many varieties of cherry blossoms and the most popular in Japan is somei-yoshino - a fragrant, light pink flower with five petals. The flowers usually come into full bloom in 10 days.
The sakura's brief flowering and extreme beauty make it highly symbolic. Some writers associate its short life with mortality, but the whole life cycle is meaningful.
'We don't just like the flowers in full bloom; we like them before blooming and even when falling. We think they fall like snowflakes,' Nakano said.
The sakura often appears in Japanese art, manga and anime, as well as films and musical performances.
There are many poems about the flower written in haiku, a traditional form of Japanese poetry that has only three lines and 17 syllables.
In Japan, there is a legend that a fairy maiden hovers low in the warm sky each spring, wakening the sleeping cherry trees to life with her delicate breath.
The Chinese associate the flowers with prosperity and luck, and will only buy those in full bloom during the Lunar New Year. But for the Japanese, the sakura is about the beauty of nature and appreciating life at every level. Or, as Nakano puts it, a reminder that 'life is so short but so beautiful.'