The Sakura (or Cherry Blossom for those outside of Japan) is a tree worthy of personification. She is at the very least a paradox – an ugly, stark tree of twisted trunks and bare branches, barren and devoid of life throughout the winter. Yet halfway through spring, signs of life begin to appear, tiny buds with the promise of beauty.
For some weeks they grow and grow until they look ready to burst. And then…glory. Heart-stopping, soul-wrenching beauty. You never forget your first time. The first mankai (full bloom) sakura you lay your eyes on. She is a sight to behold.
For me it was at Kinuta Park, deep in the heart of Setagaya (the ward we live in). It wasn’t the easiest park to get to. Not like Yoyogi Koen or Shinjuku Gyoen. Kinuta Koen, a fifteen minute walk from Yoga Station, rewards those who are willing to venture further afield. In all honesty, upon first entering I was disappointed. The sakura trees near the entrance were nowhere near blooming. They remained ugly and bare, tiny buds not yet opened. But as we made our way further into the park we came to a sakura grove, ancient trees standing together in a circle, sharing secrets, whispering in the breeze. The stark contrast of the dark branches against the delicate, softest pink petals was striking. A beauty I had never encountered.
Further into the park more and more sakura met our thirsty gaze. At first glance, the location we chose to set ourselves up was not the cream of the crop. But once under those blooming branches, dappled sunlight sneaking through, we knew we had chosen well. Throughout the afternoon many people stopped at our tree, taking photos and marvelling “mankai” to each other. It was one of those days where even in the moment I knew I was living a magical, memory-defining moment. Even against the backdrop of fighting toddlers, dirty nappies and carefully prepared picnic food smeared over the picnic blanket by grubby little hands, there was a joy, euphoria even. The magic of nature in all its glory. A gift like no other.
Now let me tell you about Hanami. Its literal translation is “flower viewing” but it means so much more. There is a feeling in Japan that nature is worth stopping for. That we must take a moment and celebrate. And so, on blue tarps under the blossoming sakuras, people drink and eat. You see the full range – from canned beer and pizza, to champagne in glasses with strawberries and chocolate. It is a tradition that dates back hundreds of years and so this year, I was schooled in the art of Hanami. Flowers and food and free-flowing alcohol? Now that’s my kind of education.
I have to say, now a couple of weeks post sakura season, I possibly did too much Hanami – ing (must learn the verb for the word!). A friend had warned me in the weeks leading up, but I couldn’t be told. I was too excited. The anticipation was too much. So as the sakuras bloomed I made my way around Tokyo, hauling my two children in the Battleship Wolf, daily packing up a small feast of food and everything you could possibly want for a picnic (as if packing a nappy bag every day wasn’t work enough).
During the two weeks of sakura the rain and winds often threatened. People talked about the weather constantly. Will the sakura last the next rainfall? What about the winds forecast for tomorrow, can the petals hold on? Luckily for me, it seemed that the collective will of Tokyo-ites kept the rain at bay and the trees in all their glory for one of the longest sakura seasons in years.
One Thursday evening, in anticipation of an abrupt end to the blooms, Bede used some flex-time and we snubbed the bedtime routine for a (crowded) stroll along the Naka-meguro. Another memory-defining moment, like naughty teenagers we drank canned sugary alcohol drinks and fed the children pieces of chicken and wedges for dinner. We paused regularly for pictures and the mood was so jubilant, the setting so stunning that even cynical Bede stopped to demand a selfie (unheard of!).
That night it rained, and yet the sakura held on. The very next day, at Shinjuku Gyoen, I experienced the breathtaking hana-fubuki (snowing petals). Wandering under these mankai sakura dropping their petals with beams of sunlight breaking through felt other worldly. The enchantment of hana-fubuki cannot be captured in a photograph. It must be experienced.
And perhaps that is the thing I have reflected most on through this sakura season. The beauty of the sakura is fleeting and while you can capture some stunning pictures (an activity I have been working at for the last month or so!), no matter how beautiful your picture, it cannot convey the feeling of just being present. To be under a mankai sakura branch, or to feel the petals falling on your face. To look ahead and see unending sakura blooms draping over the edge of a canal. To feel the warm sun on your skin, the breeze in your hair and debate with your friends what percentage of bloom a particular sakura has reached. These are moments that can only be experienced.