Cherry blossom season in Japan is anticipated all winter long but when it finally arrives it is nothing more than a tease. A flush of pale pink blossoms emerges in flirtatious sprays and hangs around just long enough to evoke such deep longing in their admirers they will memorialise these blooms forever more.
Brides and grooms converge on Japanese gardens to have their wedding pictures taken amid the flush of blossoms, weeks and sometimes months before the actual nuptial date. Families spread tarpaulins beneath the vaporous blooms and set out their picnics, even though the wind is cold and a faint drizzle seeps from the sky.
Japanese visitors stroll beneath the trees, selfie sticks held aloft, their thumb-clicks casting in aspic (or in digital format, at least) that moment when the blossoms hold fast upon the stem for an endless moment, showing no intention whatsoever of ending their brief lives in an earthwards plummet.
Cherry blossom season is glorious. Soul-stirring. Wondrous. Life affirming. For, fragile as they appear to be, the blossoms' emergence is forceful, decisive; there is no stopping it. But they are unpredictable, too, for no imperial order can command them to emerge before they are ready to do so.
When the time is right — not a minute too soon — cherry trees hither and yon will erupt with blossoms clustered in miniature bouquets of the palest pink. Drab city streets will come alive with splashes of pink; featureless lots will tremble with baby blooms; carefully sculpted gardens will blush, on time and as planned, with clouds of frothy, tissue-thin buds.
The cherry blossoms are more than a mere beautifier, and perhaps this is why the Japanese hold them so dear. They signify in swift succession the beginning, the middle and the end. They convey in their pastel petals the brevity of life, the fleeting nature of our days, the urgency — and acceptance — with which we must live our lives.
Cherry blossom season is a kind of new year in Japan, a starting over, a washing clean of the slate and beginning afresh. But these blossoms hold in their very being the promise of death. 'With cherry blossoms, we start things over,' translates my guide, Jasmine, from a haiku. 'And we find beauty not only in the cherry blossoms but also in how they flutter to the ground.'
And it's from that fluttering that we can derive the most valuable of lessons: youth and perfection are fleeting; time marches on inexorably, and unless we follow purposefully in its wake it will leave us far behind; and budding is only that: a laying down of the foundations from which much stronger shoots will emerge once our inexperience, our naïveté, is cast off.
"It is not wise to focus too intently on one attribute, for if we broaden our gaze we will find that in every season of life there is something to celebrate."
There's another, perhaps altogether more important, truth implicit in the blooming of the cherry trees as spring spreads across Japan: there's more to nature — and to life — than cherry blooms. Though they are exalted above all on the Japanese horticultural calendar, and are beloved of foreign visitors desperate to time their travels so as to catch the unfurling blooms, they do not define this landscape. Indeed, they are but a fleeting part of a tableau in which the black pines and red pines stand strong and noble all year long, their needles bending beneath the weight of snow and bouncing upwards again as spring breathes upon them.
They are part of a floral symphony in which irises and wisteria and peonies and azaleas alike will flush the towns and cities with colour, and in which Japanese maples — now just starting to unfurl their fragile, scarlet baby-leaves — will turn yellow and orange and blazing red and will then lose their autumnal coats and become mere skeletons come winter.
Cherry blossoms are the harbinger of spring, to be sure; their petals are pinpricks of light illuminating a winter-darkened landscape. But spring is just the beginning, a birth which could not occur without the sowing of seeds and the nourishing of roots generations earlier. Perhaps, then, the true lesson is this: it is not wise to focus too intently on one attribute, for if we broaden our gaze we will find that in every season of life there is something to celebrate.
Catherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.