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March 31, 2015

Sakura, Sakura: An Ode to Spring in Japan



Anyone interested in Japan or Japanese culture would be well aware that springtime turns Japan into a wonderland of pink flowers. Sakura. Cherry blossoms. It's an image explored across all art forms - from ancient woodblock prints, theatre and song, to relatively new media like film, television, anime, digital art. The practice of hanami (picnicking under a blossomed cherry tree, literally "flower watching") has been around for hundreds of years, since before the Heinan Period (794-1185). I know I can't write anything new about sakura in Japan, I'm certain it's all been said before. But I also feel that sakura season is an inherently personal experience, and one I'd like to try to convey in my own words so as to never forget how I feel in this moment. How full it makes my heart. How lucky I am to live this life, and how I will be forever dreaming of this time when it has passed.

The blossoming of sakura stands for rejuvenation, new life, a fresh start and a sense of possibility. The transformation is sudden and breathtaking. Places that are regularly of little note burst forth into blossom. The blossoming and falling happens within the space of about two weeks. Just as the bitter chill in the air disappears, you'll notice the buds popping up on sakura trees. At first you wait patiently, checking the online sakura forecast and pencilling in picnic plans. Soon, the buds look heavy and ripe, and you become impatient. Though you've waited all year without too much thought or worry, now it seems outrageous; unbearable to wait another minute.

Then (finally!) soft, puffy blossoms appear in a shade of pink so pale that it's barely there. They cover every branch - the most common variety of tree's leaves don't appear until the flowers are gone - so the blossoms fill up your eyes. Winter melts into oblivion and people come out of their houses, meeting with friends under sakura to share food, sake, and celebrate the start of spring. At its very basic level, Sakura heralds the first signs of warmth and hope after a long winter.

It's an incomparable sight. Every year I am overwhelmed by the beauty of it. Yet, it's not that the cherry tree's flowers are more beautiful than any other flowers I've encountered here in Japan. I'm smitten with the ethereal wisteria tunnels of May, the vibrant and delightful hydrangea of the rainy season, not to mention the fields of pink cosmos in autumn. At a purely aesthetic level, these flowers all rival the beauty of a sakura flower.

No, I think our understanding of the sakura's exceptional beauty is based somewhere deeper - steeped in a sense of tradition and cultural importance; an appreciation of nature and it's ceaseless cycle of seasons. To see so many people of all ages, genders, and different walks of life enjoying something so simple as flowers is inspiring. Nature is majestic, and something so central to Japanese culture. Sakura reminds us of this. Of course it helps that the sakura trees have been planted liberally around cities - lining roads and rivers, marking schools and decorating parks. Cherry blossom groves seem to have been knowingly planted by generations gone. I thank them silently. And because the tree is so plentiful, our appreciation expands.

The fleeting nature of sakura is also key to our fascination with its beauty. As quickly as they appeared, the petals of the cherry blossoms begin to fall. Falling sakura is a wonderful thing to witness. If you are lucky you may have a year where there's no interference from rain, and you'll walk under the cherry trees while the petals lightly float down to create a soft pink, trampled carpet underfoot. Sometimes a strong wind blows and they fall from the sky like pink snow. If you are feeling particularly reflective on events in your own life, the coming and going of sakura will likely inspire some symbolic personal meaning. For good or bad, nothing lasts forever. The crucial thing to remember is to look up, to be present. Appreciate all you have, and understand that all things change with time.

Every sakura season, I remind myself how lucky I am. Every sakura season I try to comprehend the beauty, and I allow myself to be amazed and inspired.

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