‘Cherry Tree Weather—What can Western Environmentalists learn from the Japanese Season of Sakura?’
Aeon Magazine, 2013.
Edited by Brigid Hains.
In Ueno Park it is peak sakura—the short, spring season of cherry tree flowering that so besots Japan. Falling blossoms settle over Tokyo’s sleeping salarymen, recumbent on tarpaulins with traffic masks yanked down around their necks. Curtains of petals draw open and closed in the wind around huddled teenagers. The flowers land on bitumen and bare soil, sometimes drifting into the open food containers of gathered observers. A distracted child places a piece of yellow eel, festooned with sakura, into her mouth.
For all their abundance, these branches would sooner produce the kind of candied maraschino cherries used to trim cocktails, than the grocer’s fruit we are familiar with. The urban cherries are ornamental, neutered cousins of orchard varieties. Planted to mark out places, or events of note, some of the trees are thought to be over 1,000 years old. Notwithstanding their lack of edible fruit, for two to three weeks in late March or early April, the city’s cherries become the most important trees in Japan. The nation’s climatic range triggers staggered cherry flowering—a blossom ‘front’ which is monitored by Japan’s Meteorological Agency as it sweeps up from Kyūshū, through Tokyo towards Hokkaidō. The cherries, and late, slow-moving plum flowers, jostle as they race around the Japanese Alps (cold snaps advantage the plum buds). When the sprays of blossom finally break open through the capital, their momentum is as forceful as floodwaters returning. The cherries’ high, white foam pours through avenues that lead to shrines, into graveyards, over public lands, and then to the brink of lakes and rivers. There great canopies of petals spread in the water above koi the size of corncobs.
During sakura, families and other groups, from workplaces or social clubs assemble to celebrate a tradition known as hanami: flower-viewing picnics. These picnics first flourished in the Heian period, and are featured in the 11th century courtly novel The Tale of Genji . When the hanami are in full-swing it can seem as if Ueno park—one of Tokyo’s most popular locations for the celebration—has become the staging ground for a hundred small reenactments of scenes from A Midsummer’s Nights Dream. Young women in short crinolines, chalk tights and dark Rococo-era dresses dart between the trees like insistent fairies. Some carry lace umbrellas (‘Goth Lolita Wear’ occupies a whole floor in a nearby department store). Having been sent to stake a patch for their higher ranking colleagues, junior wage-earners set to dreaming in intimately vulnerable postures; their arms and legs flung out to indicate an intention to occupy more space. Paired shoes in a row belong to no one nearby. Nihonshu (saké) turns cheeks ruddy and friends garrulous.
As the sun sets, the mood of enchantment reveals other themes. Metamorphosis and attraction. Flash cameras twig at the edge of perception all through the night. The shots later come to colonize social media—sakura, stark and fibrous against the black sky. The flowers are extended electronically, long after they have withered, dropped, and ceased to be.
Gazing into the throats of flowers is surely one of the most trite, and universal, acts of environmental appreciation. From handpicked posies displayed on a mantelpiece, to the questing of the German Romantics for Novalis’ impossible bloom, flowers induce an apparently effortless contemplation of aesthetic beauty in nature. Yet, for all the stock wonder of cherries crowned in blossom, contemporary Western environmentalism has an uneasy relationship with notions of the beautiful.
Read the full essay here.