29 March 2024

Beauty Blossoming—Japan’s Cherry Trees


Michael Pronko

Michael Pronko is a Tokyo-based writer specializing in murder, memoir, and music. He is renowned for his writings on Tokyo life and character-driven mystery novels, such as "The Last Train," which have earned awards and received five-star reviews.

Go to Website

Every year in March and April, everyone in Japan stops to look at the same thing. It's the only time of the year that happens. Usually, people's lives run in diverse ways, but at cherry blossom season, everyone looks in the same direction.

Recently, I walked through Shinjuku Gyoen Park, famed for its cherry blossoms. Even on a cloudy, windy afternoon, the elegant walkways were packed. Lovers strolled, old friends chatted, kids skipped and laughed, colleagues joked and nodded, and everyone posed and took photos, hundreds of hundreds of photos.

It was impossible to find any angle without strangers in the frame. What other flower is so loved that everyone photobombs everyone else? And then shrugs and smiles about it? But maybe we weren't strangers. We were cherry blossom lovers united. We entered other people's photos, and they entered ours.

Cherry trees are popular, but not in the way of some corporate ad campaign for the newest, latest product—they are naturally popular. Like rice. Like a smile. Like sunlight. They have a natural appeal that needs no promotion. Cherry trees are their own perennial promo feed, advertising only themselves.

Maybe one reason people love cherry trees is because they seem so alive. They're different from too-tall pines or majestic cedars, which command awe and respect, or even from smaller blossoming trees, which are necessary and nice. Cherry trees feel closer. The heavy, creaky branches hang down to the earth to meet humanity halfway, like a warm handshake from an old friend.

Cherry trees look best set against other trees and, for a month or more, dominate all other trees. The colors of the blossoms set off all shades of greens and every hue of the sky. They match everything. Those other plants fade into the background while the cherry trees deliver their annual center-stage soliloquy. They draw admirers like a magnet. For a month or more, you rarely see a lonely tree. People crowd around them wherever they are.

Even an old cinderblock wall or a dusty schoolyard is transformed by a single cherry tree. They transform blacktop or plain old dirt into something magnificent, dropping their petals like a comforting shawl over the world's shoulders. People will stop in front of a single tree for a few minutes on their way home, even if they would never stop there any other time of the year. They get us to pause from the rush of our lives.

Cherry trees next to rivers, canals, or moats are especially appealing. Fortunately, Japan has plenty of waterways through its cities. The small petals float on top of the surface, and turn the water into a long, flowing robe of white and pink. It's no coincidence that flower girls mimic the cherry trees' petal scattering at weddings. Cherry blossom season is the annual wedding of humans and beauty. Not every tree gets its own party, but cherry trees do—every year. And everyone comes.

At night-time during cherry blossom season, people carry food and drink to tarps and blankets spread on the ground and have hanami parties. Spaces are limited and traditionally, the youngest employees in companies spend their days staking out the best spots for when the other employees come later in the day. Before Covid, the parties could be raucous, a time to really let loose. If you come too late, it's impossible to find a spot, even if it rains. They're all filled with red-faced drinkers and carried-in feasts.

But I like the daytime better. You can see the full glory of the trees and I love watching people taking photos of people as they nestle themselves against the blossoms, burying themselves in their beauty. I noticed an older woman with a cane brushing her hair and preening her outfit while a friend, or maybe her sister, waited for her to get ready. Like the trees, she was not too old to look good, not too shy to let her beauty show.

Corralled by parents, kids pose for a few seconds before racing off to play tag or ride piggyback with friends or siblings. The photos mark their growth from year to year. A couple of kids blew soap bubbles, but the bubbles couldn't compete with the petals. The kids know they are supposed to be paying attention to the flowers, while also learning to appreciate the uniqueness of the cherry trees, which they'll return to the rest of their lives.

Many foreigners in the park, some perhaps witnessing the spectacle for the first time, held their camera gear in hand, looking too overwhelmed to know where to start. Their multilingual "wows" continued as their fingers began pressing the shutter button. They seemed to slip into a sort of awed contemplation of what is such a simple, great idea—putting cherry trees all over the place.

I especially love how cherry trees seem to dance. They are always in motion, swaying, hula-ing, shimmying, rising like an ocean wave, making the wind visible for a moment. All trees have their own dance style, but cherry trees have an earthy elegance to theirs. They shake off petals a few at a time, bending and recoiling, their limbs sprightly despite their age.

And people follow suit. Everyone moves differently around the trees. As I looked over the open grounds of the park, everyone's strolling was close to dancing. Women sashay and roll their hips. Men bob their heads and twist their shoulders. People turn to each other—smiling, touching—and then gently drifting apart. It isn't just the kids in constant motion. Everyone sways like dancers in tune with the music of the trees.

People move back and forth in the light trying to find the best angle to photograph. They search for the right perspective to catch the dappled whites and pinks shifting from glossy to matte to electric. When the sunlight hits them, the color can be almost painful. People seem to be pleading with their cameras to work better to catch all of the beauty they can.

The beauty pulls people away from constantly checking their phones. Yes, they check the last photo to make the next one better, but they connect the trees to something deep inside themselves, letting the surface of emails, messages, and online searches disappear for a while. The blossoms are like the opposite of what pops up on a smartphone screen—not just ad-free, but are open and natural, and real.

That always makes me wonder if there is such a thing as universal beauty, something that all humans could agree on. A glance around suggests everyone has their own taste in what looks good in clothes. But they all agree on the blossoms. And in response, they dress nicely, in similarly neat outfits carefully chosen to do their best next to the beauty of the cherry trees.

And even among the trees, they flock to the more impressive ones like birds to a feeder, wiggling as close as they can, like carp to crumbs tossed in a pond. There is no hope of getting an individual shot near the prettiest, fullest trees. No angle allows just one person and the tree. There are always too many people.

And in front of the most resplendent trees, people always take extra time to prepare. They don't want to look sloppy when the background is so spectacular. Those taking the photos take the photos more carefully, too. They squint at their screens, twist the lens, and position the shot like cinematographers. Standing there in the act of photographing a fully blossoming cherry tree, it's as if, for a moment, everyone touches the most sublime beauty. We feed off it. We want to take a photo with that, to wrap ourselves in it, and exist for a moment, beneath the branches, and in the photograph forever. And when, at last, we have to leave the trees, we console ourselves that next year, we can again stand in front of the cherry trees to replenish our supply of beauty and recharge our senses to last another year.

View Sakura Motif Collection