April is the month when the cherry trees in Japan come into bloom. Their fragrant splendor has the country breaking out of its daily routine and gazing in wonder at the blossoms. The Japanese call it “hanami,” and celebrate it with song and sake.
My first cherry blossom was not on a tree. It was lying flat on the sidewalk, like a lost postage stamp. While the neon signs reflected tirelessly back and forth on the streets of the Japanese megacity Toyko, between them, tiny and humble, lay five forlorn blossoms. I was in a hurry, but the moment I looked down at them, they seemed to whisper: “We bring the spring! After us comes summer!”
Bend down to gather up one of these blossoms and you will be surprised by just how fragile a structure it is. And you wonder why people kick up so much fuss about them; why an entire nation goes wild every year between mid-March and early May simply because the cherry trees between the island of Kyushu in the south and Hokkaido in the north begin to bloom; and why the weather forecast devotes a map to the progress of the “cherry-blossom front” as it officially called. At the same time, though, you get why everyone gazes skyward when sakura, the cherry blossom, transforms branches and twigs into clouds of pink and white, until a few days later, as though suddenly tired of them, the cherry trees shed their blossoms for the wind to drive through the streets like fragrant snow.
Just how much the cherry blossom means to the Japanese can be measured by the fact that they have a word especially for visiting the cherry trees and gazing at their luxuriant blossoms: hanami. The ritual associated with it requires certain preparations. Now that the bitter winds blowing in off the Pacific are easing, the Japanese are buying bento boxes filled with rice, sushi and other delicacies, as well as sake, the traditional rice liquor, beer and wine. Thus armed, they head for the floral clouds. Families will often send individual members on ahead to the parks to grab the best spots. The same way tourists in all-inclusive hotels lay towels on poolside sunbeds, they spread out blankets beneath the most beautiful trees. This is unusual behavior for the Japanese, as is settling down – even on the sidewalk– on a blue plastic tarp they’ve brought along. But wherever the Japanese enjoy their picnic, they drink and laugh till their cheeks glow. Then they sing, sometimes with backing from a karaoke machine. But there is one song almost everyone knows by heart: the sakura folk song in praise of cherry blossom.
The yozakura, nighttime cherry blossom, also attracts people like moths to a flame. Then floodlights make sure they can do hanami and carry on drinking together, even in the dark. The Japanese, whose sincere courtesy and consideration are so charming, forget themselves beneath the trees, forget what otherwise sets their culture apart. In high-tech Japan, nature manages to make people relax collectively, let their tense, hunched shoulders drop. They pause for a while, breathe out! As spring arrives, economic power Japan slams on the brakes.
People are as intoxicated by cherry blossom as they are by alcohol. At no time over the rest of the year will you see the Japanese in such a state of abandon. While the Japanese consume alcohol at every occasion, the peaceful intoxication that accompanies the cherry blossom is unsurpassed. The Japanese normally drink with their bosses to prove themselves reliable and trustworthy. They drink alone to blot out the loneliness of modern society. When the cherry trees blossom, everyone drinks to loosen up.
They have up to ten days’ opportunity for this – that’s how long the trees blossom. Like a flock of birds, the glorious sight migrates northward, region by region. Working six days at a stretch, often long into the night and living life as it comes, with no resistance – that, too, is typical in Japan. But when the cherry trees blossom, the people blossom, too.
The first records of hanami, of self-immersion in the enchanting poetry of the landscape, are more than 1300 years old. Even in those bygone days, people recognized in the humble blossoms of the Japanese flowering cherry (prunus semulata) and the Yoshino flowing cherry (Prunus yedoensis), which generally bears no fruit, the wonder, but also the transience of life. Maybe that’s also the reason why simplicity and purity are the core values of Japanese culture. They will remain as long as the cherry blossom festival is celebrated.
Sakura also informs daily life: schools, nursery schools and day nurseries bear the name; half of all deciduous trees in Japanese cities are cherry trees; there are pop bands, manga characters and sweets with the name “cherry blossom.” The most famous form of Japanese poetry, haiku, acquires a special potency when it endeavors to describe the floral spectacle. In fact, haiku only attained true greatness after describing the cherry blossom. Three lines of 17 syllables are all it takes to express an entire attitude to life. Poets like Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa were writing two to three centuries ago but they are still quoted today because they wrote about the sakura.
But not only were praises sung of the blossom, it also graces the city of Tokyo’s coat-of-arms. The noble Samurai warriors wore it as a symbol on their armor. Even the members of the Yakuza, the Japanese underworld organization, have the blossom tattooed on their skin. The reason is that for all its delicacy, its message is a powerful one – as a symbol of transience and beauty, it teaches every beholder this lesson: Life is short, but not meaningless. The blossom also assures us that: “Those who die young, die in beauty!”
In Japanese culture, blossoms generally play a major symbolic role. A haiku must always feature a blossom. The plum blossom festival is not as well known as the sakura, but in Japan it is hardly less significant. The radial chrysanthemum blossom is celebrated on September 9 as the fall flower. It stands for strength, abundance (harvest) and long life and is assigned to the Japanese ruling family. At the end of April, Emperor Akihito abdicated, stepping down from the Chrysanthemum Throne after 30 years – just as the cherry blossoms faded. And so this year, spring also brought with it a new ruler, Akihito’s son, Naruhito. The change afforded the people of Japan an unprecedented ten-day holiday – good luck for those living in the north, where the cherry blossoms were still in full bloom.
Even Tokyo, the city that despite its well over 30 million inhabitants and crowded train stations is always oddly quiet, feels different during the hanami season The city, which is almost always a closed book to outsiders because it works according to its own complicated rules, opens up like a bud on a tree. Yoyogi Park, the green heart of the city, suddenly comes alive. People go down to the Meguro River to stroll along past the more than 700 cherry trees on its banks. In Ueno Park, the cherry trees from a floral tunnel, their blossoms touching above the heads of visitors – the perfect selfie opportunity. During the sakura season, the Japanese even appear to lose their great reserve toward foreigners.
It caused the distinguished gentleman to dismount from his horse, a cherry-blossom twig
These days, budding cherry trees are celebrated all over the world. Japanese flowering cherries were planted for decoration in Bonn in the 1980s, and in 2017, the city canceled its cherry blossom festival because the previous year it had attracted simply too many foreign visitors. Since Hamburg’s Japanese community presented the city with cherry trees, each May since 1968, it has held its own cherry blossom festival, a great public celebration complete with fireworks. In 1990, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a donation of cherry trees also reached the reunified Berlin, and a total of 10 000 trees were planted in the German capital, 1000 of them along the former one-and-a-half-kilometer stretch of wall between Lichterfelder Allee and Teltow-Sigridshorst. Where 30 years ago, the wall separated East and West Berlin, today locals and tourists alike delight in the glorious cherry trees blossoming there from mid-April to early May.
But hanami remains unique because it sends an entire country into a blissful rapture. So, should you find your first cherry blossom blown onto a sidewalk in Toyko, don’t just take it as a gentle hint that spring has arrived. It is also a blossom that allows non-Japanese to get a little closer to this enigmatic country and its people in the same way that the Rhenish soul is better understood if you visit Cologne or Düsseldorf at carnival time in the spring. The collective escape from the everyday, the collective intoxication of partying with friends and strangers, sends a clear message: Precisely because life is such a serious business, it’s important to take time out from the daily trot, to rediscover a little magic.