The first time I saw sakura was not in Japan. It was in the Japanese Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and there was a lone cherry tree in full bloom.
I remember 10-year-old me gazing at it in awe—trees were supposed to be green, but this one was covered in lovely pink petals that fell with the wind. It felt like I was in a weird cartoon, where the world couldn’t seem to get its colors straight. Funnily enough, it also occured to me then that I may be viewing the world differently from everybody else…that maybe in the “real” world, green was really orange, and red was really a murky brown, etc.
(I know. Even at age 10, I already had this weird way of looking at things. Haha.)
Anyway, I later learned that sakura trees only bloom a brief two to three weeks in a year, usually in April, so when my friends and I decided to book a Japan trip during Holy Week (which was in late March), we didn’t really think we’d actually experience Japan’s Hanami (“flower viewing”) festival. Luckily, sakura season came early this year, and by the time we reached Tokyo, we got to join in on the Hanami fun!
Tenryu-ji Zen Garden, Kyoto:
Nara Koen, Nara Prefecture:
We got to see a number of cherry trees every now and again in Kyoto and Nara, but the seemingly infinite number of blooming sakura trees in Tokyo totally blew us away. It began when the Tokaido Shinkansen reached Shinagawa. From the train, we saw a river lined with an endless row of cherry trees, and by the time we got to Tokyo station, we had already grown tired of them. Not.
A few days later, I needed some me time so I took an early morning walk by myself in Shinjuku Gyoen. Located a mere five minutes away from our hotel, the park is apparently touted one of the best sakura-viewing spots in Tokyo. And indeed it was. Check out the view that greeted me that fine morning:
These cute rugby players decked out in Dragon Ball Z costumes were as much a hit in the park as the sakura :D
Later that afternoon, Bea and I ended up in Ueno Park, where a full-on Hanami celebration was happening.
Everybody was in high spirits, drinking bottle after bottle of beer and sake and having picnics under the trees. It was the first time I experienced Japan in full volume! Haha.
Ueno Park was quite crowded—an understatement—and we couldn’t find a spot under the trees to park our tired asses on. Turns out that it is common practice to reserve a picnic spot long before the party is held. According to a new friend I met in Tokyo, it is typical for a lower ranking employee in a company to reserve the spot early in the morning until the rest of the group arrives after work. It was probably why I saw people alone reading books during my early walk in Shinjuku Gyoen.
In Japan, cherry blossoms are deeply symbolic and are often used in Japanese art, manga, anime, film and musical performances. The transience of the blossoms, their extreme beauty and quick death, has often been associated with life’s ephemeral nature—an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition that is embodied in the concept of mono no aware (“the pathos of things”). Apart from the fact that they’re really really pretty, it’s exactly this aspect of sakura that draws us in. These blossoms remind us how fleeting and beautiful life is, and like Japan’s age old Hanami tradition to celebrate these gorgeous blooms, so too should we celebrate how lucky we are to still be alive :)