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When I was seven I watched fireworks across a river in Perth with my dog by my side. It’s one of my earliest memories. Years later as an adult, I felt the same rush of carefree happiness when I experienced cherry blossom season in Japan. Along with the besotted Japanese, I swooned over explosions of soft pink flowers.
I wish I was there now. It’s springtime again and the country is in rapture. News reports build anticipation for the ‘Sakura Zensen’ (Cherry Blossom Front) weeks ahead. The arrival date changes each year.
Years ago, I timed my trip to chase the sakura. I didn’t understand Japanese but I loved the fervour in the nightly TV weatherman’s voice. Something big was coming! When the first branch with five blossoms unfolds in Okinawa, in Japan’s southernmost tip, the nation erupts in glee. Party season is officially on!
Hanami (flower-viewing) picnics flood parks, temple and shrine grounds. Onigiri rice balls are festival tradition. Squid skewers sizzle on hibachi grills. Fuelled by alcohol, laughter grows louder into the night. Paper lanterns illuminate trees that glow like incandescent bonfires.
The jubilation lasts only one to two weeks. Warm weather coax buds out of hibernation, then ushers in rainstorms that knock the petals. When the sakura drops in the northernmost island of Hokkaido the show is over.
So hanami is ultra-competitive. Companies dispatch junior staff at dawn to save prime spots for office parties. It gets out of hand and I read about city councils enforcing curfews on stake outs.
Even the shops are infatuated. Consumerism in Japan is astonishing. Every whim of its huge population seems catered for. But when people’s hearts and minds are diverted to the skies, businesses have to join the party. Shelves are flushed pink with sakura soft drinks, wine, cakes, biscuits, ice-cream, textiles, kimonos, stationary and homewares. Even beer:
Starbucks releases a limited edition sakura frappe. McDonalds once got surreal with a hamburger on a pink cherry-scented bun with pink mayonnaise:
The Japanese have cultivated sakura for over a thousand years and it inspires art, music and poetry to this day. ‘Sakura Sakura’ is an Edo Period (1603-1868) song still taught in schools. Here’s an instrumental version played on the traditional koto:
‘5 Centimetres Per Second’ is a 2007 anime film. The title alludes to the trajectory of falling petals. It’s a bittersweet tale of a young man and woman who meet in spring, then become separated over the years:
For the Japanese, hanami is a cyclical marker of time. They can reflect on the revolving carousel of family, friends, lovers and colleagues over a lifetime of basking under powdery canopies. As I discovered, these delicate blooms emit an innocent blush while wielding a mighty nostalgic punch.
Spring brings renewal. April is when school returns, companies welcome graduates and new promotions commence. ‘Go gatsu byou’ translates into ‘May sickness’ – the post-hanami comedown when adjusting to new schools and jobs fosters disillusionment and reality falls short of expectations. In World War II, kamikaze pilots painted sakura on their planes. The ephemeral flower symbolised life as beautiful but short.
Japan’s post-World War II industrial growth delivered dazzling technology and prosperity but also environmental degradation that continues today. About three-quarters of Japan is mountainous and uninhabitable. Most people live in crowded cities in flat, coastal regions.
A stunning artificial beauty thrives in these concrete urban landscapes. Tokyo at night is a multi-layered, hyper modern ecosystem of competing signs and advertisements. Built by humans, this electric floral display hums with a vibrant organic spirit.
Once a year though, Nature declares its sovereignty and bestows its gift of the year’s biggest social and cultural event. Sakura trees bear no fruit. As an anonymous Japanese writer explained, “The Japanese cherry tree does not need to produce a market crop because it is a born aristocrat and its single mission is to be beautiful.” The nation’s subjects, art and commerce bows to its majesty.
I was lucky to soak up ten days of hanami madness. I’d grown very fond of the excitable TV weatherman as he traced the Sakura Zensen each night on the map. But by my third last day, the pristine pink street carpets were soiled with mud. I plucked a petal off my sleeve and gazed at this lucky coin. Traveller’s malaise hit hard on the day I flew home. The long, slow zip of the suitcase bore a heavy finality. “Go gatsu byou!”
I love Japan’s riotous hi-tech excess. Injected into its sensory maelstrom, life amplifies tenfold when your synapses are on fire. But when a single sakura petal floats like a snowflake into your bento lunchbox…that is the ultimate Zen moment that you burn to memory.
One more picture – a hanami party table with drink cup holders. So clever!
Sources: Lowell, S.,Chasing the Cherry Blossom, Oxford: Lion Publishing plc, 2001
Enbutsu, S., A Flower Lover’s Guide to Tokyo, Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd, 2007