I used to work nights and weekends at my old job, and one particularly unlucky year I was missing all the cherry blossom parties friends were having while I was stuck in the office. I managed to catch a break, though, because right at the tail end of sakura season a girl I knew had a day off that matched up with one of mine, so we decided to go check out the flowers together.
We met at the station, walked down to the river, and the scenery was drop-dead gorgeous, like something out of a travel guide or some trendy Japanese TV drama or anime. After walking down a lantern-lit path lined with cherry trees in full bloom, we bought some snacks from a food stall in a park, sat down, and spent an hour or so soaking up the atmosphere.
It’s weird to think that in just a few days, all those achingly captivating pink petals would fall from their branches and be blown away by the wind. But hey, that’s what makes the sakura so special, right? Their beauty is that much greater because it’s so fleeting, right?
Yeah…I’m not sure I buy that.
Just about any Japanese cultural guidebook will tell you that the country’s residents love cherry blossom because the short-lived flowers are a perfect metaphor for the bittersweet moments of transient happiness in life and human relationships. To be fair, there’s some truth to that. No doubt influential is that the Japanese school year both ends and begins in spring, so the sakura tend to appear somewhere around the time people are saying good-bye to their classmates at graduation.
It’s also true that the temperamental blossoms only stick around for about two weeks, and the exact timing of when the flowers will begin to open is notoriously hard to predict. So yes, there’s definitely a certain “enjoy this while you can” mentality, but to say that it’s the only, or consistently main, thing that sets the tone for Japan’s appreciation of the cherry blossoms might be a bit of an exaggeration.
For starters, maybe most of the beauty of the cherry blossoms doesn’t come from their limited lifespan, but from the fact that they just look incredible.
▼ Would people seriously say “Eh, that’s not so pretty anymore” after more than 14 days of this?
The typical Japanese cherry blossom viewing party, or hanami as they’re known in their native Japanese, isn’t anywhere near as wistfully pensive as the somber image poems and love songs are so fond of ascribing to sakura. Most of them are more like slightly rowdy picnics, with plenty of munchies and enough alcohol to run a small bar. At the sakura gatherings I’ve been to, I don’t recall anyone sighing and waxing nostalgic about days gone by, regardless of the age of the participants, but I do recall a lot of laughter, plus one of my fellow revelers once good-naturedly tossing me into a cherry tree.
▼ Like I said, “enough alcohol to run a small bar.”
There’s even a subtle upside to the limited time in which the cherry blossoms bloom. In Japan, work and school generally come before everything else, and tending to those responsibilities means delaying more pleasurable things. But with such a short window of sakura opportunity, there’s a significant, implicit understanding that if people don’t clock out or take a break from studying now, they’re going to miss their chance to enjoy the flowers, so society cuts workers and students a bit of slack during those two special weeks in spring.
None of this is to say the claim that Japanese people like cherry blossoms because of their ephemeral, somewhat tragic nature is out-and-out wrong. At the same time, it’s not the only way people in Japan enjoy them. When you stop and think about it, that makes a lot of sense, because obsessing over the fact that the sakura you’re looking at right now are going to soon be gone ignores the equally certain truth that they’ll blossom again in 12 months’ time.
▼ “Be right back!”
Case in point: Weather-wise, this year has been one of the lousiest sakura seasons in the decade-plus I’ve lived in Japan, with rain and cold temperatures for almost the entire past week. But you know what? On the last night before the first rain clouds showed up for their extended stay, I managed to wrap up work at a reasonable hour.
Just down the street from my apartment, there’s a tiny little neighborhood park with about a half-dozen cherry trees. By happy coincidence, that same girl who I shared the quintessential sakura moment I talked about at the start of this article with was also free that night. I decided to ask her out again, and I had a pretty good hunch she’d say yes this time too, seeing as how we’re married now and all.
So we took a stroll down to the end of the block. We stopped at the 7-Eleven on the way to pick up some drinks, then sat on the bench in the park and looked up at the sakura, which weren’t really in full bloom yet, outlined against the night sky.
Was it as dramatic a setting as the riverside walkway lined with lanterns and cherry trees? Not really, but that didn’t mean the more humble surroundings weren’t beautiful in their own way. It didn’t put a damper on the night, or cast us into a solemnly reflective mood.
Even under less than optimum conditions, cherry blossoms are still a sight to see. Sure, you could focus on how the flowers are only temporary, but the trees themselves can live for centuries, producing a new batch of blossoms for each of those hundreds of springs. So if the stereotypical image of cherry blossoms is just too gloomy for you, here’s an alternative way to look at the situation.
A happy moment is a happy moment, regardless of how long it lasts. Put enough of those together, and you’ve got a happy life, with a chance to add another sakura-filled memory every 12 months.
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