It’s the eve of the day marking one month since we arrived in Japan. We are in Fukuoka, and it’s the first night of our last stop before heading to South Korea. We walk through the clean city streets with significantly more awareness than when we first arrived in the country: we know to wait at the red lights even when there are no cars around; we know to find a place to stop and eat our takoyaki rather than eat it on the go; we know to take our trash back to the stand we bought it from or risk being stuck holding it, looking for a bin indefinitely. Basically: we know more of the rules—and, in Japan, there are a lot of them.
As we walk, we come across a park that had, hours earlier when we passed it, been an ordinary park. But now it is dark outside, and the park has been transformed: pink lanterns hang in the cherry trees, casting a pink glow against the delicate blossoms. Below the canopy of flowers, tarps of men and women in their business suits kneel around tables filled with everything from platters of sushi to boxes of pizza, giant green bottles of sake to plastic cups of purple Fanta. On smaller picnic blankets, couples snack and sip on Asahi; a few groups of women gather with young children, but the crowd consists mostly of adults. The mood is festive, yet peaceful; jovial, yet serene. In a country filled with people working themselves to the bone, life appears to have slowed down long enough to celebrate and enjoy this natural event. We loop around the path slowly, taking in the many faces gently illuminated in the pink light. I don’t want to forget this scene.
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Some time after we booked our tickets to Japan, I was doing travel research when I realized, with conflicting feelings, that we were going to be in Japan during peak cherry blossom season (yay!), likely along with a million other eager, camera-touting tourists (oh, shit). A little bit of dread leaked into my excitement at the thought of witnessing this beautiful event, only to be blocked by the digital screen of someone else’s smartphone. But upon arriving in Japan, I began to realize how important this season is to the people who live here; the sakura celebration isn’t a thing manufactured for tourists, but rather an existing event so cool that tourists have deemed it an attraction. The 100 yen coin has a cherry blossoms etched into it; their importance is ingrained into the culture.
And there really is something magical about the cherry blossoms! Joey makes fun of me because there are plenty of cherry trees that bloom around this time of year in Portland that I have never oogled over. But here it’s different. The trees are beautiful, yes: absolutely. Additionally, as a spring flower with a fleeting lifespan, they signify renewal and “the fleeting nature of life.” However, the spirit around the event of the trees blooming in Japan is what has captivated me the most.
The trees typically start to blossom in the southernmost parts of Japan in early to mid March, and gradually bloom in a northern direction (influenced, obviously, by weather) through April. We flew in to Tokyo and worked our way south, providing us with the unique and unexpected experience of witnessing the trees in a variety of stages of bloom; concurrently, we experienced the anticipatory energy and celebrations as the country prepared for and welcomed the cherry blossoms.
In Tokyo, most trees were full of green or pink buds, but they were still in early enough stages of bloom to look rather unassuming. This prompted me to pose the question, “Do you think that’s a cherry tree?” to an exasperated Joey somewhere between 5 and 50 times per day. The trees still looked like a bunch of sticks, pruned and maintained with conspicuous discipline. As we moved further south, through Hakone and into Kyoto, we began to see a (literal) early bloomer here or there. Often, these early bloomers had attracted attention, and people stopped to get all up in the tree’s business to capture it’s buds, ready to burst, or the newly escaped blossom.
This image of a local person—perhaps a sharply dressed businessman or a young mom pushing a stroller—stopping to admire the budding floret is what initially prompted my greater understanding of cherry blossom season in Japan. Japanese people celebrate the sakuras like we, as Americans, might celebrate Christmas mixed with the 4th of July—lots of anticipation followed by picnics and carnivals—but with a greater element of appreciation for the beauty of nature.
In late-March Hiroshima, we started noticing people camping out on big blue tarps spread under the branches of the near-blooming trees. A quick bit of research confirmed the theory that people secured their spots to watch the trees bloom, eating and drinking in the company of colleagues or friends underneath the branches. Empty festival grounds—with food tents and portable Ferris wheels—looked ready to pop off the second the trees did; cherry-flavored soft serve and treats were abundant; beers cans and sake bottles were pink with flower themes; women and men of all ages wore pink and posed with the buds, or under the early bloomers. Everyone was ready for nature to do her thing, whenever she was ready. And then she did.
The trees were in full bloom as we travelled down to Nagasaki and back up to Fukuoka, surprising us each time we spotted a patch of delicate pink on the evergreen mountainside. The petals of the once early bloomers were starting to snow down gently as the rest of the pack stood proud, in full bloom. The country as we were seeing it had been transformed and so, by the time we made it to Fukuoka, the scene of locals enjoying themselves under the sakuras wasn’t surprising; it was, however, beautiful.