Can you guess the location of the International Cherry Blossom Festival? Wrong! it is held in Macon, Georgia, which is billed as the “Cherry Blossom Capital of the World,” and allegedly is the home of over 300,000 Yoshino Cherry Trees.
For the first time since the pandemic, I travelled to Washington, DC. I’ve been to Our Nation’s Capital dozens of times before, but never during peak cherry blossom season. The banks of the Potomac, glimpsed during the trip from Reagan National Airport to the hotel in Arlington, were transformed by the sugary pink and white floss of petals. The sight brought to mind the classic Japanese melody “sakura sakura yayoi no sora wa mi-watasu kagiri” (you may be more familiar with the version from Bon Jovi’s Tokyo Road):
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Colouring fields, mountains and villages
As far as the eye can see.
Is it a misty haze, or clouds?
Scented by the rising sun.
After my presentation (which went well — thank you for asking) I headed off for a closer communion with the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin. The weather was actually wintry cold with high winds, so I was very glad that I’d brought my magenta wool coat, hat, and gloves (a shivering woman nearby enviously wished she’d done the same). I walked around the entire basin, under the branches heavily laden with pink and white petals, with flurries like snow when the wind gusted. The skies initially were black with ominous clouds, then cleared to sunny bright blue, later returning to drizzle, and the panorama re-animated in the changing light.
Kenkō: “Are we to look at cherry blossoms only in full bloom, at the moon only when it is cloudless?”
Sei Shonagon (a Heian-era aristocrat) had decided opinions about everything, including different types of flowers. Pear-tree blossoms were “the most prosaic, vulgar thing in the world,” and “the less one sees of this particular bloom the better.” Red flowering plum trees filled her with happiness, especially when covered in a late snowfall. However, like the rest of the world, including the Emperor Ichijō, she reserved a special passion for the branches of the cherry, denouncing the theft of the petals by the wind. (In DC, breaking off a frond is literally a federal crime).
Japan undoubtedly should own the geographical indication rights to Sakura. One spring, I visited Little Tokyo in San Francisco with a Colonel in the Japanese Airforce, who said that cherry blossom season is the time to sit under the trees and drink sake (from my close observations, however, every day seems to be the best time to drink sake). Sakura is also consumed in a range of food and drink, from spring-time wagashi to pickled petals; and Starbucks even offers Sakura Strawberry Sticky Rice Cake Frappuccino, which may be too much of a good thing. One of my favourite anime, Hikaru no Go adeptly shows the changing seasons, with clouds of cherry petals flying when the new school year starts. Along the Potomac, there were probably as many people engaged in hanami as flowers on the tree, including a group of tourists from Japan in kimonos, on a global sakura pilgrimage.
Sakura are treasured as a reminder of the fleeting nature of life and the impermanence of the things we most cherish. Shonagon thought that cherry branches should/could not be painted. So there is a manifest irony in writing a post about cherry blossoms that will forever be captured in digital format. Technology allows us to transcend seasons and offers a sameness that eradicates the ephemera of time and place. Strawberries, asparagus, and lamb are available all year round, and American restaurant menus rarely change in the spring or winter. Houses are maintained at the same temperatures, and ice is no longer harvested from Maine ponds for cooling “ice boxes” in more southern cities (what, never? Well, hardly ever). According to the Pillow Book, “if the outfit fails to match the season, then the whole effort is futile,” but today who even knows whether white should be worn before or after Labour Day?
At least, the National Park Service is acknowledging the transience of Sakura, by maintaining a broken link to its site for cherry blossoms.