For outsiders who can’t resist the urge to make sweeping generalizations that will later prove deeply embarrassing, Japan offers particularly dangerous territory. As someone who spent parts of 2006 and 2007 as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo, I should know.
It is a culture that seems to transmit practices that have remained virtually unchanged for millennia, but still embraces the new relentlesslyan island nation that lived in forced isolation for centuries, but eagerly adapted to the foreign when available, from the shock doctrine Western industrialization after the Meiji Restoration in 1868 to the packs of 50s-style leather-clad rockers I saw gathering in Yoyogi Park on Sunday afternoons. Land of contrasts and all that. Walk around here carefully and know the many, many things you don’t know.
But there are certain aspects of Japan that are obvious to everyone, even a young reporter on his first night in the country dropped the Narita Airport shuttle in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. One of those things is the arrival of the cherry blossom. Each spring, the country pauses on Japan’s four main islands, from the bottom of Kyushu to the southern tip of Hokkaido, to witness the sakura, the brief bloom of the cherry blossoms. It is a moment, a few days at most, when a country that otherwise feels like it is constantly moving comes to a halt to participate in hanami – gather to see the blossoms, well, blossom.
You could say that the cherry blossom is the national symbol of Japan, and while you’d fall into clichés, you wouldn’t be wrong. Saga was the first Japanese emperor to wear a hanami. organized meeting in the early 9th century AD, and the “Tale of Genji,” arguably the world’s first novel, features scenes of aristocrats celebrating hanami. In 1594, the great Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi held a five day hanami party for 5,000 attendees in Yoshino, part of a tradition that would continue spring after spring to this day.
Every year as winter wears off, the Japanese look to the sakura zensen, the cherry blossom report, to know when and where the trees will bloom. Advance notice is critical – in a normal year, more than 60 million people will travel to and within Japan to watch the boom, which pumps some $2.7 billion into the economy, according to an analysis by Kansai University. Much of it will be issued by Japanese companies operating hanami. host parties for employees. as the sakura As the season kicks off, you’ll see the youngest workers, tasked with securing a picnic area for the office hanami, flock to 1,000 cherry blossom viewing points across the country so their superiors can eat and drink in full view of the trees.
And why are they coming? Perhaps, like the 17th-century haiku master Matsuo Basho, occupy in mono no awareness, the art of appreciating impermanence, symbolized by the flowers that bloom each year in a temporary brilliance of white and pink before falling to the ground. “How many, many things / do they evoke / These cherry blossoms! / Very short -“
Or maybe, as I did in my one very short spring in Tokyo, they’re coming for the party. During that one week in the spring, in the capital’s relatively few parks — per person, Tokyoites enjoy maybe a quarter of the greenery of a native of New York or London — the sakura showing off a riot of color that offsets the concrete and neon. There’s no better place to be than under those airy branches on an April night, drinking sake and beer with colleagues and friends.
Still, you don’t have to have the soul of Basho to know there’s something special about blooming. Yes, the blossoms are beautiful not only in their own right, but also in their brevity, a fact they remind us of when they inevitably fall to the floor after the bottles and bento boxes have been emptied. “If the cherry blossom can still be relied upon to bloom at a certain time, it can also be relied upon to die shortly after,” writes novelist Hanya Yanagihara. wrote in 2019† “You wait 51 weeks, and in a maximum of seven days you are waiting again.”
The changing of the seasons brings rhythm and meaning to Japan, with its “rigorous and distinct sense of aesthetics, one that is based on a celebration of seasonality.” So many of my memories of my time in Japan are tied to the seasons: the turning of the autumn leaves as I walked through the temples of Kyoto with my mother; the snowflakes that cover the grounds of the Imperial Palace on a winter evening; the paper lanterns of the Obon festival glow along an alley in Tokyo on a hot August night. And yes, hanami in the spring, always in the spring.
It is not the seven days of bloom that hanami . to give its meaning, but the 51 weeks of waiting on both sides – waiting, but know that time will return, as always. The flowering may be short, but the oldest of the trees can live for centuries or even longer† Through earthquakes, tsunamis, revolutions and war, the trees have their turn, as reliable as the rotation of the earth.
That is why with the sakura . has happened season in recent years is so disturbing. In 2020 and 2021, pandemic restrictions have closed Japan to foreign tourists and hanami. discontinued parties, the latter a loss that Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike compared to “taking hugs from Italians.” Restrictions in the capital were finally lifted this spring, just a few days before the trees reached full bloom on March 22delivering a long-needed dose of normality, even as ommicron-driven case counts soared.
Sakura faces a longer-term threat: climate change. cherry trees require a month with winter temperatures below 41 degrees Fahrenheit to flower fully. As the climate in Japan has warmed, the timing of flowering has changed, possibly even delaying flowering. But in Kyoto last year, the peak bloom was the earliest in some 1,200 years, due to the early spring heat. One study of Washington, DC’s own iconic cherry trees — a gift from the Japanese government more than a century ago — estimated that with moderate warming, peak blooms could be five days earlier by the 2050s and 10 days earlier by the 2080s.
Everything is change in the world, as the Buddha said, and to experience hanami is to realize that beauty is inseparable from impermanence. But what comforts the pain of seeing the blossoms is the promise that they will return again and again. If that is lost, then we are left with only loss.
For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the A good case archives.