Enjoy life's fleeting beauty

The 1,000-plus cherry blossom trees in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – said to be one of the best in Tokyo.

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.

Previously I would have just winged it, deliberately not raising expectations to avoid disappointment. This time, I kept the same goal in mind but took an opposite approach: planning early and carefully, as is the Japanese way. Michelin guides were consulted and reservations duly made, at restaurants selected not only for the quality of their food but also for their proximity to the routes on my meticulously planned itinerary.

I consulted sakura calendars and scouted the best parks. I pre-ordered recommended set menus for lunches and dinners. I looked for shops my parents might like, and sought out their hotel the day before they arrived.

As was to be expected, all the preparations made for a series of unusually smooth and orderly excursions.

The 1,000-plus cherry blossom trees in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – said to be one of the best in Tokyo, but with an admission fee that had always deterred me from going on my own – easily topped any other sakura park I had ever seen.

At Ukai-Tei in Ginza, frequented by chef Tetsuya Wakuda of Waku Ghin and one of only two Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo to serve teppanyaki cuisine, we were wowed as much by the expert countertop cooking as by the carte-blanche dessert trolley.

But some experiences ended up feeling forced, like trying to make a coffee out of a flower with no distinctive flavour.

Because we had made advance reservations, there were times when we had to sit down to dinner right after stuffing ourselves with snacks the whole afternoon.

And somewhat to my surprise, the highlights of the trips turned out to be the impromptu discoveries we made on the few days we had no plans.

There was the noodle shop we ran into after a sudden downpour in Shinjuku Park; the sushi restaurant we stumbled upon that ended up being one of our best meals that week; the obscure little store of Japanese cookies that made beautiful souvenirs.

As it turned out, the lesson I learnt this April was not to map out everything carefully in advance, but to make some plans here and there and let life naturally fill in the blanks.

Like the sakura, the most precious experiences are fleeting and best enjoyed in their ephemerality. Perhaps celebrating their transience and the belief that they will come around again isn’t such a bad idea after all.

fiochan@sph.com.sg

This article was published on April 27 in The Straits Times. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.