It was not sakura trees coming into full bloom we sought but rather the silent rain of its petals and to stroll amidst the floral phenomenon of cherry tree snow.
Given their own airtime, sakura forecasts feature daily in early spring as their blossoming trail moves through the south to the north of Japan. We would catch glimpses of these televised reports as we travelled and found ourselves peering out of train windows to discern the level of sakura bloom in each passing prefecture as our shinkansen whooshed by. Viewing the earlier blooming plum trees in Yakushima had us impatient to catch the internationally hyped sakura season. As we waited we seemed to be pacing over time, travelling from the south of Kyūshū into the far north of the icy Tōhoku region then back south into the middle of Japan's Kansai area to rendezvous with the arrival of the sakura.
Depicted via woodblock, ink and watercolour scenes there is a reason that the image of a blossoming cherry tree has been repeatedly painted over the ages. Its beauty, whilst fleeting, enchants all who stand before it with the urge to capture and share the sight of a sakura tree in full bloom. This urge still endures today as prime camera clickbait and can be witnessed each spring as people swarm bee-like to these pastel flowers. If there ever was a tree to claim its own paparazzi or to be the most cherished by a nation, a blossoming sakura would be it.
Culturally acceptable to forgo an afternoon of work - picnic blankets are spread and prime spots are marked out hours before groups of families, students, salarymen and Yukuza descend to languish together in hanami (sakura viewing). This pause in the usual day-to-day, to sit beneath a flowering canopy is meant as a time of reflection. To appreciate that life is beautiful, albeit short and fleeting. The sakura to the Japanese is a symbol of new beginnings and it seems to exist to deliver a pastel puff of renewal after the depths of winter and to acknowledge the beauty found even in death as the sakuras fall petal by petal to the earth.
In transit from the pottery village of Mashiko, we came across our first sight of a cherry tree in full bloom. The gigantic weeping sakura guarded the entrance to Ueno Park in Tokyo, stealing our breath away, replacing it instead with superlatives as we attempted to articulate the glory of the towering beauty before us - its flowing branches glowing pink in the afternoon light. The magic of the sakura continued as we later returned south to Kyoto to tread the Path of Philosophy, whose cherry tree canal had induced the wonderings of life's impermanence for many others before us. As we strolled under each blooming corridor I wondered about the people that had first thought to plant these trees and if they had an inkling of the gift they were bestowing upon us centuries later. This in itself an example of how a simple action, any action, will flow on to affect many more.
While we visited the most noted sakura sites through Japan's main cities, and stumbled across numerous other hidden pockets abloom, I hoped to share with Mark what I had witnessed only once before - the dramatic last act of the sakura known as hanafubuki: falling petal snow.
It was early on a drizzling Tokyo morning that we took a short cut through Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden en route to the National Museum of Modern Art. We had packed light, choosing to leave our bulky camera gear behind that day and after wandering past ponds, pagodas and postcard perfect scenery we found ourselves encased underneath a grove of voluminous cherry trees. Buoyed by a sudden crisp breeze, the boughs heavy in over-ripe bloom, spent petals were discarded in flurries of pale pinks and whites. Finding ourselves without the optimal camera gear to capture such moments, we stood there mesmerized, caught in our own hanami moment, recording the delicate floral debris falling around us to our own crispy memories.
Two mornings later we returned to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden hoping to film the magic of hanafubuki between the showers that had besieged Tokyo. Waking at sunrise and enduring the icy cold front that had blown in overnight we waited under the sakura trees, our clothes and shoes becoming soggier and soggier as the showers rained down.
As the morning passed we realised the cherry blossom snow we had hoped for was not to fall. Laden with precipitation, the sakura petals were stuck together, none were dry enough to make their fateful journey to the puddled floor. The irony of our morning however was free to fall around us - in our efforts to capture the beauty of falling sakura we had essentially only succeeded in filming the rainstorm that had captured us.
With our flight home due to depart soon we headed back to the hotel to change for our final journey. Never eager to board the flight signalling the end of an adventure we were all too happy to be tucked into our seats and kick off our wet shoes that had squelched through Tokyo airport.