The dance of the cherry trees

An Irishman’s Diary about a botanical star of the east

People in boats view cherry blossoms along Imperial Palace moats in Tokyo. Photograph: Reuters

People in boats view cherry blossoms along Imperial Palace moats in Tokyo. Photograph: Reuters


Few things in nature are as beautiful or as welcome as the annual appearance of the cherry blossoms. They announce the onset of spring more reliably than changing clocks, and the sight is all the lovelier because it’s so fleeting. Well might the Cork songwriter John Spillane have eulogised the spectacle’s electrifying effect “every April in our town”.

But nowhere is the event more spectacular, or more celebrated, than in Japan. There, the cherry blossom is not just a pretty flower. It’s a national symbol of hope and renewal. And to some extent, it’s also a cause for reflection on the meaning of life.

During Hanami – the cherry blossom festival – large crowds flock to where the best tree collections are, including Tokyo’s Ueno Park or the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto. There they enjoy the views, inhale the scent, have picnics. If spiritually or philosophically inclined, they may also take time to ponder the sad truth in the blossoms’ ephemeral beauty: all things must pass.

The cherry blossoms are an almost meteorological phenomenon in Japan. A bit like our Atlantic fronts, except warmer and slower-moving, they sweep in over the country from the south and west, gradually penetrating all areas. Indeed, Japanese weather forecasters are expected to give detailed predictions about when the flower “front” will reach various parts.

The country’s shape – long and narrow, with a southwest to northeast axis – adds to the drama of the annual event. And cherry blossom season in Japan is indeed theatrical, in more ways than one.

It even has an off-Broadway opening, on the island of Okinawa in late January or February. Then it rolls northwards to the main stages of Tokyo (where the blossoms were declared open earlier this week) and Kyoto (where it happened yesterday). After that, it tours the northern provinces, including Hokkaido.

Hokkaido, by the way, is uncannily similar to Ireland in both area and population. For anyone with a sudden urge to book flights, its capital, Sapporo, might be the best option. The show doesn’t open there until May.

Unhappily for the forecasters, the onset of Japanese cherry blossom season is not quite as regular as another Asian phenomenon, the Indian monsoon, which breaks over the southern tip of that continent on June 1st, or very close to it, every year. But they do at least have plenty of historical data with which to work.

Because of the event’s importance in Japan, dates of Hanami celebrations have been recorded for many hundreds of years. This means that, along with their appeal to philosophers, cherry blossoms are also popular among exponents of phenology, the branch of science that studies plant and animal life cycles and their interaction with climate.

Thus, an international phenology conference in Trinity College in 2010 featured discussion of Hanami as an indicator of climate change, with history indicating a six-week range in cherry blossom openings in Kyoto down the centuries, from late March to early May, the modern trend being towards the earlier date.

It’s at least partly because of Hanami that the embassy of Japan in Ireland holds some of its biggest events around this time of year. One of the main ones is the Japanese film festival, which to some extent mirrors the cherry blossoms, with phased openings across Ireland, starting in the south.

An outbreak of Japanese cinema is therefore expected next Thursday, April 3rd, in Cork, continuing for three days. After that it will spread northwards, reaching all parts – or at least Galway, Limerick, and Dublin – by the middle of month, before turning south again to take in Waterford.

I’m amused to see that the festival’s opening film this year is Unforgiven , a Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s brilliant revisionist western from 1992. It used to be the norm that classic Japanese films were remade as cowboy movies. Now it looks as if Eastwood’s revisionism was even more influential than it first seemed.

The other big event of the coming month is the Irish version of the cherry blossom celebration, AKA the Experience Japan Festival, which takes place at Farmleigh on April 13th.

And while I’m at it, I might as well mention that John Spillane is giving a concert on April 4th, in the Wexford Arts Centre. That’s not part of Hanami, I don’t think. But either way, “The Dance of the Cherry Trees” is strongly expected to feature.


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