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sakura zensen

cherry blossoms at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

weeping cherries

Weeping cherries at Brooklyn Botanical Gardens


There are few things as lovely as the annual eruption of cherry blossoms – a time of year I very much look forward to on Canada’s West Coast.  Vancouver is well known for its cherry-lined streets, which at this time of year can make moving through the city an almost psychedelic experience, with pink and white blossom clouds floating everywhere just overhead and petals drifting down to the rain-beaded pavement like kisses on tears.

Sakura zensen refers to the front of blooming cherry blossoms that creeps from south to north up the Japanese archipelago every spring. Blossom time is eagerly awaited all over the country and is marked by hanami celebrations, during which people eat and drink under the trees, whose short-lived flowers are revered as symbols of ephemeral existence. There is even a mathematical formula to predict blossoming time as a function of temperature and latitude, and the blooming is tracked with a precision that might elsewhere be accorded to dangerous weather systems.

For me, as for many others, the arrival of the cherry blossoms, no matter where I am, serves as a welcome harbinger of the season – a real sign the glumness of winter has been banished by the nascent radiance of spring.  With this year’s unseasonably early warmth on North America’s east coast, the sakura zensen there seemed a little rushed. The Okame cherry sapling that had been planted a couple of years ago in front of Ruthie’s East 7th St. apartment was already sending out tendentious blooms by mid February, and by the time the end of March came around, the collection of weeping cherries at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens was in full display. Laid out in the classical ‘hill and pond’ style, the BBG’s Japanese garden is one of the oldest of its kind in North America, having been established in 1914-1915 by the seminal Japanese landscape designer Takeo Shihota. By now, many of the trees are splendidly old and have a picturesqueness in their gnarled trunks and arching branches that contrasts beautifully with the delicacy of their pastel-hued, floral cascades that strew their petals onto the surface of the quiet pond, to be nuzzled by the whiskered snouts of carp.

In a kind of meditation on ephemerality, filmmaker Lucy Walker has released a most poignant movie she calls The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, which Ruth and I recently went to see at the Japan Society. Walker interleaves the joy of witnessing the cherry blossoms’ annual return with harrowing, first-person accounts by tsunami survivors who witnessed their friends and family get swept away to their deaths, and who must now manage somehow to get on with their lives. Though it is hard to see how anything good could come from such an epic disaster, Walker’s film gives us an insight into the Japanese sensibility of  mono no aware; literally ‘the pathos of things,’ reminding us, even in the face of catastrophe, to love each other and to value each precious moment we are allotted, before it too drifts away like a petal on the wind.


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