LBB 11: A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees

I am currently in Tokyo* in the midst of the cherry blossom (sakura) season. While I didn’t have a cup of sake** actually with me while I was reading these very engaging snippets of wisdom from the Japanese poet Kenko, I have been lucky enough to see the coming of Spring to Japan. Over the course of just the past two weeks there has been a spectacular transition from bare branched cherry trees to tsubomi (the time when the flowers are just budding, but have not yet blossomed) to migoro (the “best time to see”, ie the time when the blossoms are in bull bloom). Over the past few days, there has even been the occasional sakura-fubuki, or “cherry blossom snowstorm”, which is what happens when a breeze catches a branch of petals and tosses them into the air. 

As of last Wednesday 15 March 2023, it was officially blossom season in Tokyo. According to the Japan Meteorological Corporation (JMC)*** more than five blossoms were seen from Somei-Yoshino cherry blossom trees at Yasukuni Shrine, in Tokyo. It was therefore declared that sakura had begun!

The blossoming of the sakura is a very important phenomenon to the Japanese. Blossom viewings are believed to have begun in the Nara period (between 710 A.D. and 794 A.D.) as a kind of fertility festival; full bloom is a good time for planting rice. Over the years it became fashionable among courtiers and high ranking nobles to have a “hanami”, or cherry blossom party, and this tradition very much continues today.

As you can see from the detailed charts below comparing relative stages of blooming across major cities, the JMC takes great care to provide accurate insights into the state of the year’s blossoms. Country wide forecasts are updated weekly. According to the JMC’s website, these predictions are based on data including “low temperatures during autumn and winter, cherry tree growth status, cumulative temperatures, and past data for each area”.

Now one might quite reasonably ask why there is so much excitement about these blossoms. The answer lies, I think, in their three essential characteristics:

i) they appear from bare branches, as if from nowhere, in a very short period of time, 
ii) they’re incredibly beautiful, and 
iii) they are fragile and fade within a couple of weeks of blooming. 

The sakura is a reminder of the ephemeral and fleeting nature of existence. It is an embodiment of the concept of ‘mono no aware’. Representing the beauty of life, every blossom is a reminder of its concomitant fragile and fleeting nature. It is this duality which makes the sakura special. As Kenko writes: 

“If life did not fade and vanish like the dews of Adashino’s graves or the drifting smoke from Toribe’s burning grounds, but lingered on forever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things which makes them beautiful.”

One might compare this to the attitude struck by the eponymous speaker of  Tennyson’s Tithonus, wishing for a death which will never come:

“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Me only cruel immortality consumes”.

This fragility of the sakura is the starting point for many of Kenko’s meditations. For instance: 

“How mutable the flower of the human heart, a fluttering blossom gone before the breeze’s touch – so we recall bygone years when the heart of another was our close companion, each dear word that stirred us then still unforgotten; and yet, it is the way of things that the beloved should move into worlds beyond our own”. 

Conversely, Kenko contrasts the beauty of the sakura itself with the pathos of beauty spoilt or lost:

“Should we look at the spring blossoms only in full flower or the moon only when cloudless and clear?

To long for the moon with the rain before you, or to lie curtained in your room while the spring passes unseen is yet more poignant and deeply moving. A branch of blossoms on the verge of opening, a garden strewn with fading petals, have more to please the eye.

Could poems on the themes of ‘Going to view the blossoms to find them already fallen’ or ‘Written when I was prevented from going to see the flowers’ be deemed inferior to ‘On seeing the blossoms’?

It is a natural human feeling to yearn over the fall of blossoms and the setting moon.”

In doing so he urges us both to enjoy the beauty of life, and also to savour even its less obviously beautiful moments. 

Even as I write this article, heavy raindrops are pulling petals off trees and onto pavements. Memories of this year’s blossoms, of lanterns swinging by the sides of the Meguro River, the raised walkway of Ueno Park, are stored away in thousands of cameras and billions of synapses. For now, and the next eleven months, we must make do with these palimpsests of the soon-to-be-lost (and already-lost) blooms, and look forward to their joyful return next year. 

Thanks for reading, if you have any thoughts or suggestions please let me know

* I am in Tokyo having just taken the ‘super express’ Nozomi Shinkansen train, on the Tokaido line from Kyoto, back to Tokyo where I am working for the next six months, until September. 

** In case anyone is interested, the sake came later, in a rather good kushiyaki restaurant called Agatha. Run by the delightful Mr. Yazawa it is tucked away up on the 7th floor, above and away from the hustle and bustle of the streets of Roppongi. As its name suggests it is gently Agatha Christie themed, and now well into its 38th year of business.

*** The JMC also publishes a number of materials, including this interesting pamphlet, which has articles about how the sakura have become a global phenomenon and about the oldest cherry tree in Japan. 

PS This is the eleventh  in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each week I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.

PPS I’ve focused on the parts of these reflections most relevant to the sakura, but there are plenty of hilarious (and quite racy) passages about romance and the good life, which I could easily have written this blog on. A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees is well worth dipping into. 

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