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Capturing Sakura’s Moments and Emotions

When I was in Tokyo my freshman year, March arrived with hanami.

My friends and I packed some chilled drinks and mochi, got on our bikes, and rode through the streets. We rounded a corner on Yasukuni Doori and I was hit with a ripple of pink flowers in the air that I had never seen before.

The cherry blossoms looked a lot like on the photos and in anime I grew up watching. My preoccupation with the steel gray of February was erased by the spectacle, and all my homesickness faded away.

Like many others, I am enamored by sakura, the Japanese cherry blossom.

We rented a small boat that you can bobble around in for 30 minutes and these memories remain with me each time the season changes.

I went to four different hanami, flower viewing parties, in my first sakura season in Tokyo. Sakura along with the imperial chrysanthemum are Japan’s most beloved national flowers. They are symbolic of spring and the end of the monotonous, sullen days of winter.

At the hanami, my friends and I laughed, indulged in each other’s company, captured photos, played music and games, shared life stories, and sang some more. It was a restoration, a respite, an essential life aspect many forget to practice.

Sakura and hanami introduced a new skill in life – “to look up.”

They reminded me of a phrase from my favorite musical I used to sing to myself when I was little, “It’s just life, so keep dancing through.”

Although hanami is usually enjoyed with more people, my first experience viewing sakura happened on a boat.

Sakura season lasts for about two weeks in Japan, from the start of the budding to the wilting of the trees, but the season depends largely on geographical location. Many underestimate how long Japan’s territory is, which actually spans about 1,900 miles or 3,000 kilometers.

Full bloom sakura was visible on March 27, 2019, while in Hokkaido the buds appeared on April 11. Sakura season is in the middle of spring, a very important cultural and economical season in Japan.

Japan’s daily life is governed by natural seasons. Spring means a new beginning, revival and rebirth. The Japanese fiscal year begins on April 1, the new school year also begins in April, and university graduates begin their first day of work on April 1 as well.

In contrast, the end of March marks graduation ceremonies and the time to say goodbye to childhood friends. The blooming and celebration of these beautiful flowers remind Japanese people of the memories they made in school and youthful springtime with friends. The fast wilt of the blossoms seeps in the sense of regret, sadness, and nostalgia at how fleeting the encounters were.

This essence of ephemeral beauty, nostalgia, and fleeting life are all essential elements in Japanese culture, something called mono no aware.

In its most simplistic meaning, mono no aware means the pathos or the transience of things.

Japanese people understood these profound meanings but they still cherish and celebrate the flowers with family and friends lightheartedly. They take photos and have flower viewing parties underneath the petals.

A typical hanami in Ueno Park, Tokyo.

Nihonshu, umeshu, shochu, mochi, onigiri, all exquisite delicacies of Japanese cuisine, are enjoyed in the company of each others in this one season only. As people get older, looking back on these hanami memories also brings up nostalgic feeling of childhood.

I think many agree that sakura embodies all of these complicated feelings within their petals.

I asked my advisor from TUJ about her association with sakura. She said she felt both melancholy and joy during sakura season. She explained to me that in her lifetime, sakura signifies the end and the beginning of something new, such as graduation from school and the start of the new hiring season.

In middle school and high school, she felt sad to say goodbye to friends she grew up with, having spent hours toiling over homework and enjoying club activities together. This same advisor was leaving TUJ and I felt some of the same sadness that she must have felt when saying goodbye to people who made a difference in her life.

By living in Tokyo, I was able to grasp the meaning of each person’s sakura sentiment by watching their celebratory rituals. For one of my sharemates, Ohya-san, it means running around the Sumidagawa and into Sumida kouen, a park lined with sakura trees on the edge of a historically significant river. Warmly lit stalls with fumes of gastronomic delights mingled among the voices of drinking teenagers.

I joined him in his promenade among the trees.

Another meaning sakura carries is the power of nature. One of the most heart-rending movies, a kind of visual narrative similar to poetry, that I watched in Japan is the award-winning short documentary The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. This 2012 film depicts shocking footage from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It then makes a poignant shift to show the change of seasons to from winter to spring and how survivors in the Fukushima – Tohoku area were inspired to continue living by the sakura trees, despite their losses.

The warm memories of the sakura as well as the comforting presence of the flower’s unwavering ability to bloom every year allowed for the disaster survivors to continue forward and rebuild their town. At only 40 minutes, the film contrasts nature’s destructive power with the spiritual connection and restorative power of sakura for the Japanese people. I highly recommend the film.

But at its core, sakura can reflect very individual responses. As someone from the film has said, “Everyone sees cherry blossoms differently depending on how they’re feeling.”

Therefore, your reaction can be as personal as you want it to be. I think it’s OK to have a memory for sakura without a Japanese nationality. In the United States, we can consider these meanings right now. In May, many students will graduate from Temple. I am already regretting how short some of my friendships lasted with a few students here and how I wish I could have spent more time with them.

Personally, sakura encompasses my experiences in Japan like romance and friendships, to whom I hope our lifelong companionship persists despite being separated by thousands of miles.

In contrast, by experiencing sakura in Philadelphia, I see the flower through its ability to adapt. For example, sakura originated in Japan but has been disseminated around the world.

My own town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was given sakura as a present to commemorate the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. Sakura also adapts in the way it takes shape in food, art, and stories’ characters. Moreover, sakura adapts over the years by wilting earlier than usual or by sprouting ahead of its forecast. Sometimes it even withstands snow, also known as yukizakura. Sakura is ephemeral yet eternal. It brings peace to the mind that knows the only constant in life is change, and your ability to adapt is your only chance for survival.

Another character in the documentary said “I see hope, because [sakura] will bloom no matter what.” I can’t help but agree with that perspective.

This year’s sakura season offered a unique American spin on the hanami. The Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia put in a lot of work to celebrate the sakura trees lining the city’s Schuykill River. Their festival tried to create an authentic experience of the season and spread the important cultural values that the Japanese associate with sakura.

As soon as I had 35 dollars, I signed up for the Philly Sakura Run 10K and  volunteered for the TU Kaiwa Club at the calligraphy stand on Sakura Sunday, April 14, 2019. At the calligraphy stand, my club members and I taught attendees how to write their names in Japanese as well as different Kanji and motifs in Japanese.

TU Kaiwa Club’s calligraphy table at Sakura Sunday on April 14, 2019.

The Kanji for sakura looks like this: 桜。木 means tree and 女 means woman. The three strokes on top look like petals. Explaining the elegance of this symbol left a smile on my face and I felt even more enamored by sakura.

While celebrating the gift of sakura from Japan, we can also enjoy the personal feelings the flowers ignite – happiness, hope, longing, and ambition. Perhaps you will admire the power of nature to create something so lovely only to wither away in the blink of an eye. Maybe you’ll also become sad upon realizing that our lives are similar to that of a sakura.

Let’s spend an extra second gazing at the petals when you pass them next year, and feel what the sakura will in you.