Sunday, April 04, 2004

Cherry Blossom Time

This week was one of the most beautiful of the year here in Tokyo! It was the height of the annual cherry blossom season and the city was at its most beautiful. It’s hard to claim that Tokyo is a “beautiful” city. Certainly when compared with, say, Paris, Barcelona, Washington, even Moscow, its architecture – even its public architecture – is lackluster and even “tacky” by most standards. “Vibrant,” “bustling,” “colorful,” perhaps but not necessarily “beautiful.” [Which, when considering that the Japanese aesthetic sense is pretty highly developed, is surprising.]

But, it’s another story when the cherry blossoms are in bloom! Perhaps it’s because the sheer beauty of these delicate pink trees takes the eye from lingering on the often bland and sometimes tacky architecture that is to be found here. The city took on a whole new look with the cherry blossoms. It’s a signal that spring – and, not far away, summer – is upon us.

People took to the streets, wandering along the cherry tree-lined avenues, through the parks, and around the temples admiring and photographing the trees. The trees were illumined in the evening so that even those of us who had to work all day long could enjoy the sight after sundown. And this tradition hanami (the act of going out and admiring the cherry blossoms and eating and drinking under the trees) keeps everyone socializing outside well into the evening.

Why all this fuss about cherry blossoms? My colleague, Keiko, tells me that the cherry blossom has captured the poetic fancy of Japan for centuries. She says that the Kamikaze pilots used them as the metaphor for themselves and their "mission” in WW2......together the Kamikaze stood as the bright flower of Japan destined to a quick and early death. There are other, perhaps more noble, moments when the Japanese wrote about and thought about the way the cherry blossoms come and go with such speed.....a very tangible reminder of the fragility of life itself.

As a foreigner viewing this particular ritual of hanami I, too, found myself reflecting on the transient nature of our time here on earth. Interestingly, this season coincides pretty closely this year with our Christian celebration of the Resurrection. A strong collision of two world views, isn’t it? On the one hand, the reminder of the frailty of our human existence and, on the other, an affirmation that life goes beyond the shortness of this season.