Outside my new home cherry blossom has appeared.
It has arrived in the past two days – unexpectedly, since the wind still carries a wintry chill and no green hint of leaf is visible, not even on the cherry trees themselves.
In my quiet corner of southwest London the flats and maisonettes are arranged around courtyards, each planted with a variety of trees and shrubs.
I moved to my new home six months ago, in late summer. My courtyard, I now discover, has five ornamental cherry trees – all visible from my front windows.
White petals appearing, with faintest hints of pink. Buds of a darker pink. The arrival of the cherry blossom feels like a cheery wink to passing neighbours still wrapped in scarves.
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In Japan the annual coming of cherry blossom has germinated a world of literature and art, and a robust tourist industry.
Sakura, aka Japanese Cherry blossom, aka the flowers on a range of trees from the Prunus family: a genus that has become a national preoccupation, an infatuation.
Japan has a wide range of varieties of ornamental cherry tree. In spring they burst into bloom in parks and residential streets.
Picnics and hanami (flower viewing) parties welcome the arrival of the blossoms. Forecasting the date on which the delicate flowers will open on trees in any given region is a national hobby.
Hirosaki Park is at the northern tip of Honshu – the largest Japanese island, on which Tokyo is located. The park has 2,600 cherry trees in 50 varieties, and its annual Cherry Blossom Festival draws over two million visitors.
Over the centuries in Japan cherry blossom has become a symbol of beauty, hope after long winter, wistful remembering, transience, mortality. Records of imperial courtiers celebrating the arrival of sakura with picnics and poems date back to the 8th century. In turn, an 8th-century chronicle speaks of hanami festivals from the 3rd century.
Sakura has become a national language, a vocabulary for emotions and experiences close to the bones of our humanity: birth, love, art, mortality, transience, faith, memory, anticipation.
It's a picture language that evokes the fragility as well as the beauty of life. The ephemeral blooms only last around a week before they fall like a blanket of snow.
A national culture has developed that holds in tension, Zen-like, two big ideas: beauty and death.
The Japanese tradition of haiku poetry famously condenses ideas and feelings into three short lines, and in haikus the image of cherry blossom recurs often.
The 18th-century poet Kobayashi Issa uses the image of cherry blossom returning in early spring to highlight the passing of time, choices made, regrets felt.
I find one of Issa’s haikus almost unbearably poignant:
In my old home
which I forsook, the cherries
are in bloom.
As national obsessions go, the arrival of cherry blossom is more endearing than most. But it is one that has become heavily commercialised in recent years.
Once Valentine’s Day is out of the way in mid-February, Japanese shops explode in a riot of pink plastic and sakura-themed foods and drinks. The world of consumer capitalism has developed its own yen for the pink blossoms.
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In my quiet corner of southwest London the cherry blossom is unaware of its rockstar status, oblivious to the Fuji-scale mountains of pink plastic simulacra on the other side of the world.
The cherry blossom outside my front windows has suddenly appeared, unannounced, fleeting; its evanescence bringing intimations of beauty, death and hope.
In my quiet corner of southwest London, the cherries are in bloom outside my new home – this home that is not forsaken.
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© Mike Starkey 2023
Pic: Matthew Henry, under licence from Burst