TRAVEL: Sakura to soothe the soul in Tokyo

In spite of hardships, there’s always Japan’s cherry-blossom season to savor

By Christopher Johnson 30 March, 2011

The upcoming hanami season will be a time for reflection.

It’s not going to be easy to sit under a cherry tree this spring and get drunk and silly with friends and thousands of other people, as in more trouble-free times.

With so many gone overseas or to other parts of Japan, some hanami parties might feel incomplete, and a lot of emotionally exhausted people will be drinking to wash away their less pressing worries.

As Japan faces its toughest challenge since the war, many will find strength and comfort in the ancient ritual of cherry blossom viewing, whose essence runs much deeper than the temporary disruptions to the rhythm of life in Tokyo.

Modern distractions

Unlike TV and the Internet, which bombard the mind with fast-flowing information, spending a few hours with flowers can bring tranquility and clarity. Gazing into a single bloom, the torrent of warnings can wither away, at least for a moment.

There is no spin or obfuscation in a flower, no posturing or paranoia. There is only simplicity, purity and truth, and an undeniably beautiful aspect to the powers of nature.

While much attention is focused on the blossoms, the trees themselves have strong characters of their own.

These gnarly old sentinels stand like philosophers and poets from ancient times, telling us how the laws of life apply to the disasters around us.

As terrible as it is to lose thousands of flowers in a sudden storm, the tree remains intact, ready to provide new flowers in coming seasons. Even under dark skies or gloomy clouds, the flowers emit a white shade of hope, for all who open their eyes enough to see it around them.

Ancient origins

SakuraPeaceful contemplation of the sakura is likely to be the dominant mood this year.In Japan, nothing is more clichéd — and poignant — than the feeling you get watching sakura petals falling off branches and fluttering to the ground. Life in Japan is like that.

Youth, or what’s left of it between cram schools and entrance exams, is brilliant and fleeting, like the short lives of the blooming flowers.

The ritual of hanami is as old as the temples in the ancient capital Nara, dating back to the 8th century.

Historians tell us that people admired the plum blossoms first, and then gradually began to appreciate the more refined, subtle aspects of sakura cherries, as described in the classic Heian era novel “The Tale of Genji.”

In those days, long before wind forecasts and radiation readings, people looked to sakura to tell them when to harvest winter crops and sow rice seeds.

They made offerings to the gods inside the trees, and drank sake to appease their own inner demons.

Court poets in Kyoto sang praises to the flowers, whose rising and passing away symbolized the ephemeral reality of life.

Hanami parties eventually spread to the samurai classes and then the common people of the Edo period, who ate bento lunchboxes and drank sake under the trees, just as people do today.

Changing times

While sakura once used to evoke images of young men going off to war, nowadays it reminds us of fresh graduates joining companies, if they are lucky enough to get a job, or classmates migrating to cities in search of temp jobs that either last too long, or not long enough.

Whether we’re sentimental or rational, the flowers do have the ability to speak to us — if we take the time to listen.

With Japan under enormous psychological strain, there’s never been a better time to lie back on the ground and gaze up at the tender little creations that embody the enduring soul of a long-suffering nation.