Japanese culture is ruled by the seasons and seasonal flavors are no different. Anyone who has been in Japan for at least a year can tell (with a sometimes disturbing accuracy) exactly what flavors will take over the local convenience store during any given season. For example, fall is the time for all things chestnut, sweet potato, or pumpkin flavored. The summer is probably the only time when you can find mint flavored things in any abundance because it is seen as a cooling flavor. Closer to summer, green tea will dominate the candy aisle (my second favorite flavor right behind mint). However, early spring is a time for, above all else, cherry blossoms.
Cherry blossoms, or sakura in Japanese, are a national obsession. There are a great many folk songs dedicated to the subject and there are even sakura blooming forecasts on the news every night. People will travel a long way just to see the sakura at a particularly famous location for sakura viewing.
There is even a special kind of party associated with the season. A flower viewing, or hanami, is a picnic in the park with friends. Basically a bunch of people get together, hang out in a park, and drink the day away to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of warmer weather (if you’re into that kind of thing. Personally, I am pretty sure I would enjoy a perma-winter). Hanamis are an incredibly old tradition (like much of the traditions in Japan) that dates back to (at least) the time of the Tale of Genji. According to Wikipedia, “Sakura originally was used to divine that year’s harvest as well as announce the rice-planting season. People believed in kami inside the trees and made offerings. Afterwards, they partook of the offering with sake.”
The sakura forecast is especially important for those who want to throw a hanami because the blooming period is only a week or two. Last year I missed most of it because I was in the United States. This year I’ll probably miss a lot of it as well, but since I’m way down in the south of Japan, it happens here earlier than the rest of the country.
Japanese culture is often concerned with fleeting beauty and as a result, sakura fill all the requirements for a national obsession. According to an article (I really recommend the article if you have a moment and are interested) by Grace Mineta, “Sakura blossoms often symbolize a life well lived: short, fleeting, and beautiful. One cannot view Sakura without acknowledging both the splendor and the pain of such a transient life.” As a result, hanamis can offer a moment to reflect on the nature of life and celebrate the good moments in it. This is emphasized by the tradition of taking time to simple relax with friends during the hanami.
And like the sakura flowers themselves, the sakura flavored-products are only around for a limited time. The downside to these kinds of seasonal flavors is that this can encourage indulging a bit more than one probably should. On the other hand, you tend to enjoy them that much more since they only come around once a year.