I received two emails from old friends in Japan recently. They wrote to tell me of the cherry blossoms, a Japanese season -yes, the cherry blossom season – and how beautiful they were. The truth is, from personal experience, the cherry blossoms are always beautiful.

One friend wrote: “The cherry blossoms have fallen in last week’s strong wind. The petals lay scattered all over the ground. I love cherry blossoms! It’s very very beautiful.” Her words echo the whole Japanese nation – a people who watch the blossoms with a reverent attitude.

I left Japan some nine months ago and I find that on a lot of days I still miss it. Do I want to go back there and live? No, but I would love to visit again. At this time of year, the last blossoms have fallen like a white rain, but rewind four weeks and the season is just beginning. Cherry blossom viewing runs in a wave up Japan, touching Fukuoka in the south, first, and then traveling up the island with the warm weather, all the way to Sapporo in the north. Some Japanese, those diehards, or maybe those with a natural inclination in them, will follow the blossom trail the length of Japan.

My first spring in Japan, on one of the rare holidays that the schools have, I went to Kyoto to view the blossoms. If Tokyo is the symbol of modern Japan with its city views and neon lights, Kyoto is the symbol of an older Japan. It is a warren of little stone streets and brown tiled roofs intermixed with many old temples and shrines. In spring, Kyoto is busier than usual, as thousands come to view these ancient walkways which are lined with cherry trees. Beauty and art. Form and nature. It is the same with the Japanese spirit, and if you realize that, you might possibly be on your way to understanding the character of the Japanese.

I was surprised that first spring at the nature of cherry blossom viewing. It is not just a stop along the side of the street or a walk down a particularly long row of completely pink and white trees. It is an attitude. An attitude of respect for nature and the brevity of life. The Japanese will walk or sit for hours amongst the blossoms, often stopping and pulling out a blanket under a particularly shady tree. Most of them will have cameras, and they will take many pictures of the trees, of certain blossoms that are larger or more beautiful or oddly pink. It is their way of capturing that brief moment of beauty, their way of capturing their moment in the presence of that beauty.

Many Japanese prepare picnic lunches which they pull out and begin eating under the cover of the white roof of blossoms. This is called hanami which literally means to view flowers, but what it really is, is the connection the Japanese make between themselves and nature. They will pull out beer and barbecues and sit beneath the blossoms. This moment of hanami is the bridge between the natural and the modern world.

Every year after that I partook in hanami myself. The hanamis that most people like and that I myself like best, are those that involve all your closest friends and family and a lot of food and drink. To be honest, they are parties under the trees! Everyone clinks their glasses or beers (and it is not a party in the American sense of the word, where everyone just wants to get drunk – for the Japanese, drinking itself, is an art form – but that is another story altogether) at the beginning and the feast begins. The smell of smoke drifts up. Everyone feels a part of something. A sense of belonging, of being liked.

There is no art to cherry blossom viewing. It is a state of mind, and one which I hope to enter again at some point in my life. But for now, I will take and fondly look at the pictures my Japanese friends sent – who are themselves so much like cherry blossoms, briefly there, but always present in my memories.

© Seth Crossman