April showers are supposed to bring May flowers, but in hyper-efficient Japan, the cherry blossoms start blooming as early as late March. When they do, the country seems to exhale a breath it has been holding in all winter.
No matter how biting the cold has been – and in many of Japan’s weakly insulated old buildings, the chill’s sharp teeth can be unrelentingly piercing – these fragile buds are an evergreen exhibition of the triumph of patient resilience over bleak despair.
At least, that’s what Japanese people always say when you ask them why they look forward so much to the annual re-emergence of the same sakura they’ve already seen every year of their lives.
Despite knowing exactly what their country’s trees will look like come April, the Japanese still insist on observing hanami – literally the “viewing of flowers” – with consistent ceremony.
Courting couples and groups of friends fill up Japan’s parks every weekend of the month with their elaborate picnics: special seasonal bento lunches and games that wouldn’t be out of place in junior college orientation programmes.
Retailers, meanwhile, conjure up increasingly bizarre limited-edition sakura-themed offerings. After sampling sakura lattes from Starbucks, sakura ice cream from Haagen Dazs and sakura burgers complete with pink buns from McDonald’s,
I have to say I still have no idea what sakura actually tastes like.
As someone who doesn’t even bother with a Christmas tree anymore, I find the national dedication to this spring celebration at once slightly provincial and strangely touching.
There is no space here for the catchphrase cynicism of “been there, taken macro photos of that” – no Japanese smile is more genuine than the sun-warmed beams on the faces under the sakura. Inspired by this earnest adherence to rituals, I decided to try a new tradition this year: heartfelt hospitality towards the surge of tourists who descend on Japan every April, along with a wave of optimistically balmy weather.
This year, some of those tourists were my friends and family, who were clearly anticipating a display of what they assumed would be my intimate familiarity with Tokyo after six months here.