Cherry Blossoms, Miyagi Style: The Shiogama-sakura

Cherry Blossoms, Miyagi Style: The Shiogama-sakura

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The Shiogama cherry blossoms.
On the grounds of Shiogama City's Shiogama Shrine are very special double-cherry blossoms. Here, we introduce you to their story. 💮

Cherry blossom season has a well-deserved place of honor in Japanese culture. Apart from its cultural, historical, poetic, and culinary influence, it’s also one of the year’s major landmark events. But it may surprise you to learn that not all cherry blossoms are the same! In this article, let’s take a brief dive and explore the Shiogama cherry blossoms, and in particular, those on the grounds of the ancient Shiogama Shrine. Divine symbol, natural monument, and even the basis of a samurai crest, these blossoms have an important place in both the local culture and landscape.

Two-Fold Blossoms

Cherry blossoms are a fixture in Japanese culture. Not simply in today’s cherry blossom seasons, but also in ancient poetry, heraldry, pastry, fabric, and much more. Today, they’ve even become an emoji, as seen here: 🌸. But despite a history of influence in Japanese culture almost as long as its more ubiquitous cousin, the Shiogama cherry blossom is different. As a multilayered cherry, it’s different than the cherry blossoms that you might be used to– but even it has an emoji 💮. So, why is it special?

Shiogama Shrine’s precincts during cherry blossom season.

”Shrine of the First Rank”

First, we need to take a moment to understand Shiogama Shrine (鹽竈神社), where the most famous examples of Shiogama cherry blossoms can be found.

Shiogama Shrine is one of the most important Shinto shrines in northern Honshu. While its status as the premier shrine of the former Mutsu province is in dispute with Takekoma Inari Shrine, it has still been a prominent local shrine attested at least as far back as the Heian era (794-1185). Fittingly given the multilayered cherry blossoms with which it shares its name, it’s actually two shrines on the same grounds, as Shibahiko-jinja is part of the same complex. According to lore, the Shiogama kami taught the local humans how to reclaim salt from seawater by boiling it in kettles. They thus gave the shrine, and the city, its name: “Shiogama” means “Salt Kettle.”

During the Edo period (1603-1867 ), the banners that accompanied the Date lord’s headquarters during field exercises or on procession included two shrine banners. First, there was one for Kameoka Hachiman-gū, the clan’s tutelary shrine. Then, the other read “Ichinomiya Shiogama Daimyōjin”– “First Shrine of the Province, Great Radiant Deity of Shiogama.” When last the Date clan went to war, in the Boshin War of 1868, so did the banners– and by extension, the gods themselves. It is thanks in significant part to their patronage, and their support of local businesses like the Saura brewing family, makers of Urakasumi sake, that the shrine and some of the city’s old trappings still exist today.

Inspiring Literature

Shiogama cherry blossoms bloom later than the more common Somei-yoshino variety. According to Shiogama Shrine, they bloom about ten days later, and tend to arrive between late April and early May.

Shiogama cherry blossoms in bloom. (CC 3.0, source)

Shiogama cherry blossoms, especially those most famous ones found on the shrine grounds, have a lengthy history. They are attested in literature as far back as the Heian era, where they can be read about in the writings of Emperor Horikawa (1079-1107, r. 1087-1107). Given that at that time, the Tohoku region was still on the empire’s fringes and actively being colonized, it is perhaps surprising that they should so move the distant sovereign in Kyoto to the point that he would write a poem. But he did, and here it is:


あけくれに さぞな愛でみむ鹽竈の
    桜の本に 海人のかくれや

Morning and evening, how they must treasure it,
at the base of Shiogama’s cherry trees:
the fishermen’s refuge

Emperor Horikawa

In time, they became the crest of Shiogama Shrine, which displays the multilayered cherry blossoms for which its grounds became so famous. During the Edo period, the flowers appeared in Ihara Saikaku’s novel Life of an Amorous Woman and Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 1724 play “Tethered Steed and the Eight Provinces of Kanto” (Kanhasshū tsunagi-uma 関八州繫馬). Consequently, that centuries-long reputation helped ensure the trees on the shrine grounds being named a Natural Monument by the Japanese government in 1940.

Lost and Restored

The national Natural Monument designation was for a specific set of trees, which later died, resulting in its de-listing in 1959.

Yet in true Tohoku fashion, the shrine did not let disaster be the end of the story. Preservation of cuttings from the original trees, grafted onto different types of cherry, helped avert the total loss of those most famous examples of Shiogama sakura. The shrine then organized a program that carefully nurtured those saplings into new trees.

That careful revitalization eventually bore fruit. (Pun fully intended.) The Shiogama cherry blossoms of Shiogama Shrine were re-listed as Natural Monuments by the national government on December 17, 1987, and then also by Miyagi Prefecture. They remain Natural Monuments to this day.

The Shiogama shrine crest. (source)

In the calendar of its events, the shrine itself has dedicated 10 May as Shiogama Sakura day. If you’re in the area this year and able to visit, consider dropping by the ancient shrine and taking a moment to appreciate these flowers. They are natural wonders that came back from the brink and are a symbol of a city and region’s resilience and beauty.


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Nyri Bakkalian

Dr. Nyri A. Bakkalian is an author, recovering academic, raconteur, and Your Favorite History Lesbian. Her PhD thesis focused on the Boshin War in the Tohoku region. She is the author of "Grey Dawn: A Tale of Abolition and Union" (Balance of Seven Press, 2020) and "Confluence: A Person-Shaped Story" (Balance of Seven Press, 2022). She hosts Friday Night History on and the secret to her success is Arabic coffee. She misses Sendai daily.

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