Cherry blossoms are synonymous with Japan. It was these ephemeral beauties that determined the starting date of March 23rd, 2018 for a two month trip to further explore the elements in the Land of the Rising Sun. The first month was spent with my sister Ruth. Together we saw Sakura in different phases of development, from gorgeous pink buds to trees mostly covered with leaves. The experience was magical, with the highlight the cherry blossom viewing party (hanami), next to Fushimi Castle in Kyoto. My solo travel spanned early Summer, a season of vibrant greens, Azaleas, Irises, the hint of hydrangeas and the flooding of rice paddies. Starting in Kamakura, the second month found me in Tokyo during Golden Week, travelling in southern and northern Honshu, and ending in Sendai to visit the 3/11 Community Memorial Centre. Here I introduce some of the elemental themes and transformations that occurred over this stimulating two months with a focus on the flower that captivates a nation.
With our Rail Passes in hand Ruth and I became cherry blossom connoisseurs over the coming weeks. We viewed the Sakura in various phases in Tokyo, Nagano, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Asuka, Kameoka, Yoshino, Imazu Town, Wani, many places in Shikoku and along the train routes we travelled. Not surprisingly I took hundreds of photos, a small selection which follows. These illustrate the transformation of some of the trees we saw and landscapes we travelled through.
The flowering of Sakura is tracked and reported on at the national scale, as described in my post ‘Space, time and flowers‘. The first blossoms I saw in 2018 were in Okinawa on January 18th. This was the start of the Sakura season in Japan which gradually makes its way up to Hokkaido over the coming months. The main ‘Sakura front’ usually reaches Kyoto in the first two weeks of April. Ruth and I were booked into an apartment near Nijo Castle over this period to immerse ourselves in the full cherry blossom experience. As attested by the photos of my Facebook friends in Kyoto and the surrounding regions however, the peak had passed when we arrived. This is what can happen when the prevailing weather, also known as the elements, affects the timing of the blossoms.
If one desires to visit a site in Kyoto specifically to see the Sakura, Google Maps conveniently illustrates where to find the best cherry blossom spots. As the image below shows the locations are marked by white cherry flowers surrounded in pink.
The late blooming of the Sakura at Heian Shrine fitted nicely with a trip I had planned there with Ruth. My purpose was to examine the design of the buildings and grounds that is based on the principles of fusui (feng shui), a dimension of Elemental Japan introduced in my blog ‘Fusui, the way of Feng Shui in Japan‘. This was one of many themes I was exploring during my two months in Japan. When we were at the Shrine the Sakura provided a beautiful setting for a Shinto wedding. It was another illustration of the significance of this flower to the people of Japan.
While Ruth and I fell under the spell of the Sakura, the joy and delight that others found in these fleeting blossoms was even more enchanting. I am unaware of any other country where flower viewing captivates a whole nation and attracts a multitude of tourists. Everywhere you looked there were posters of cherry blossoms, music and parties under the cherry blossoms, special train trips, festivals, Sakura inspired events and cherry flavoured/coloured sweets, cakes and ice-creams. What a special time to be in Japan.
The highlight of the Sakura season for us was taking part in a hanami (flower viewing party) at Fushimi Castle in early April 2018, shown below. Our party was one of many in the Castle grounds. There was a sense of joy and light-heartedness in the air. It was a very enjoyable afternoon.
Yoshino, near Nara, is one of the most famous Sakura sites in Japan. Over 30,000 trees have been planted on the slopes. When Ruth and I visited on April 13th unusually only a few cherry blossoms were visible. Most of the trees had already put on their new green leaves as seen on the two hillsides in the image below. We were visiting Kinpusenji, a famous Shugendo Temple at Yoshino, to view the Zao Gongen – three impressive and powerful blue statues – only periodically on show. As described in my post on the winter pilgrimage I participated in, Shugendo has intimate connections with the elements.
Cherry blossoms are associated with impermanence and new beginnings in Japan. That equates with transformation. These themes were the subject of a blog that Ruth wrote on April 5th, the first year anniversary of the day her husband Peter died. The day was a special one which I was pleased to be part of. You can read Ruth’s personal and moving account here.
In my month of solo travel after Ruth left I travelled further afield, as mentioned in the introduction. Originally I was planning to write about that period as well. That was optimistic! I have already written enough. What I can say however that both with Ruth and on my own I learnt a tremendous amount during the two months in Japan. Thanks goes to Ruth, my friends and colleagues who made it such a rewarding and enjoyable time. You made all the difference.
From watching ‘Sekigahara‘ on the flight to Narita, to the many examples of serendipity, I feel that these two months in Japan has taken my appreciation of the elements to a different level. Especially when combined with the lessons learnt on my winter trip in January/February this year (see here and here for my posts on winter in Japan). It has been a transformation. In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of the Sakura season, I have learnt more about elemental themes such as metal and fusui (identified above), fire, the management of natural disasters (before, during and after), gorinto (five element towers), religion, history, train travel, food, festivals, energy and the Meiji Restoration. Quite a mix! The latter is marking its 150th Anniversary in 2018 and has some fascinating connections to the elements. Over the coming weeks I will share my impressions of these different dimensions of Elemental Japan and my thoughts on the way they come together.