Near the Meguro river in Tokyo on a bright spring day, three young women are eating lunch by a blossoming cherry tree and tapping messages on iPhones. They are part of Exile Tribe Nation, fans of the boy-band collective whose original members founded the entertainment group Love + Dream + Happiness. Each has by her side a white bag from LDH’s nearby store, bearing the logo “LDH Perfect Year 2020”.

This should have been a perfect year, not only for LDH and its coiffured bands but for Japan itself. The coming of spring, when sakura – cherry blossoms – float like pale pink clouds on the trees that line Tokyo’s rivers and fill its parks, should have been the start of celebrations leading up to the Tokyo Olympics and the arrival of millions of tourists. Sakura season should not have brought danger as well as beauty.

The next day in Yoyogi Park, the sun shines for the March equinox holiday as a little girl in a pink bunny-ear headband and smock picnics from a wicker basket with her mother. Some couples play badminton, while others blow streams of soap bubbles into the air; families spread food and sakura-branded drinks across blue tarpaulins under somei-yoshino cherry trees, taking photographs on selfie sticks. The lockdowns in London, New York and Paris feel far distant. But the staff in black facemasks blocking entry to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery emporium in the Nakameguro district, the roped-off seats at the river, and the absence of electric lanterns hung in trees to illuminate the petals and let revelry linger into the night tell another story. Japan’s efforts to fend off Covid-19 discreetly are faltering. Within days, the Olympics will have been postponed and Tokyo’s parks closed to hanami (flower-viewing) parties.

Nineteenth-century portrait of a girl among cherry-blossom trees
Nineteenth-century portrait of a girl among cherry-blossom trees © Mary Evans/Pump Park Vintage Photography

Sakura means everything in Japan. Rituals to celebrate spectacular displays of blossom go back more than 1,000 years: in the 17th- and 18th-century Edo period, hanami turned into an annual rite of feasting and celebrations, with even Buddhist monks caught up in the dancing. The spring awakening prompted couples to cast aside reserve and make love under the intoxicating petals.

In modern Japan, spring is the start of school and university years, and the time for new recruits to join companies. “A friend took a black-and-white photograph of me with my mother, Akiko, underneath the gossamer-thin pink petals of a single cherry tree near the school gates. Everyone did the same thing – everyone. Not to have taken a photograph would have been almost sacrilegious,” the author Naoko Abe writes of her first day at nursery school in 1963.

Images of cherry blossom started to appear in Europe during the Japonisme movement of the 19th century – Vincent Van Gogh’s 1887 Portrait of Père Tanguy shows prints of Mount Fuji and a cherry tree by a river. A gift from Tokyo’s mayor to the US of 3,000 cherry trees in 1912 led to the blossom becoming part of spring in Washington DC. But it took colour photography, and recently Instagram, for the rest of the world to become as bewitched as the Japanese.

Children play under the cherry blossoms in Kinuta Park, Tokyo
Children play under the cherry blossoms in Kinuta Park, Tokyo © Daisuke Hamada

“Gonna post a few videos to show you how much fun I’m having in the studio, feel like a kid in a sweet shop, can’t stop painting! Who said cherry blossoms are dark?” Damien Hirst posted on Instagram last October. He filmed himself flicking pink blobs at canvases of cherry trees for an exhibition at the Fondation Cartier in Paris that was to be held in June. That was disrupted by coronavirus: the gallery shut in March amid the French lockdown.

Hirst’s exuberance fitted the mood in the days before Covid-19. April overtook June as the most popular month for visiting Japan in 2018, with 2.9 million foreign tourists coming for spring. A Kansai University study estimated that sakura spending boosted Japan’s economy by $5.8bn. Some 9.6 million Chinese tourists visited Japan last year, and thousands joined in the throng at Nakameguro, drinking ¥600 (about £4.50) plastic flutes of Moët & Chandon pink champagne and eating from stalls. Sakura is the closest that Japan gets to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Cherry Trees Blossom, 1891, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
Cherry Trees Blossom, 1891, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi © The Pictures Now Image Collection/Mary Evans Picture Library

Coronavirus intruded this year, but the shadow it cast is not entirely alien to the season. Sakura does not just mean love and renewal, but also evanescence and the fleeting nature of existence. “The Japanese are implanted with sakura as a symbol not only of the season but of ourselves,” says Mariko Bando, author and chancellor of Showa Women’s University in Tokyo. “The blossom is beautiful but it goes away. Our lives are not eternal.”

Let me die/Underneath the blossoms/In the spring/Around the day/Of the full moon

When the poet and Buddhist monk Saigyo Hoshi wrote these lines in the 12th century about the wild cherries of Mount Yoshino, he captured a characteristic Japanese sakura emotion. The blossom’s budding, its ripening to bloom and its final fall has long symbolised the cycle of life and death. In 1899, the author and diplomat Inazo Nitobe contrasted the cherry with the thorned English rose, calling it “our flower, which carries no dagger or poison under its beauty, which is ever ready to depart life”.

Yoyogi Park in Tokyo
Yoyogi Park in Tokyo © Daisuke Hamada

Sakura was a fertility ritual in ancient Japan, with farmers climbing mountains to observe the arrival of blossom on cherry trees, which they took as a signal to plant rice seedlings. They believed the petals embodied the deity of rice paddies, who would bring a good crop. “Farmers thought the blossoms would fly down to villages and protect the rice,” says Naoko Abe. By the ninth century, scholars had claimed the cherry as quintessentially Japanese, a symbol of its independence from plum-loving China. The imperial family held the first hanami party for aristocrats in 812 AD, with the word hanami making its debut in The Tale of the Genji, an 11th-century story by a lady-in-waiting. In the Edo period, the pastime proliferated across society, with every citizen enjoying spring with picnics under the cherry trees. Even then, despite the partying, sakura evoked a sense of mono no aware (the pathos of things) – an awareness of life’s fragility.

Cherry blossom and rickshaws in 1890s Yokohama
Cherry blossom and rickshaws in 1890s Yokohama © Mary Evans Picture Library/Pump Park Photography

The association with death deepened after the 1868 Meiji restoration, when the government launched an effort to unite the nation and amass an empire. The cherry blossom was used in propaganda to represent Japan’s emerging national spirit. “The Japanese love cherry blossoms’ transparency and purity,” dictated a school textbook in 1900. “Our hearts should be as transparent as the petals of a cherry blossom. Without this, one is not truly Japanese.”

The military used the phrase “scatter like flowers” for soldiers dying in battle, and in the second world war, tokkotai aircraft used for suicide attacks were painted with blossoms, the anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney records in her book Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms and Nationalisms. “You and I are two cherry blossoms/We bloom in the shadow of a pile of sandbags/Since we are flowers, we are doomed to fall/Let us fall magnificently for our country,” sang naval cadets.

Chidorigafuchi, Tokyo, one of the city’s most popular spots for viewing the blossoms
Chidorigafuchi, Tokyo, one of the city’s most popular spots for viewing the blossoms © Daisuke Hamada

The tree picked by Meiji governments to signify Japan’s expansion was not a yama-sakura cherry of the variety first venerated by farmers, but the somei-yoshino, which had been cultivated in the Edo period as a hybrid of two wild species. By the late 1880s, 30 per cent of cherry trees in Tokyo were somei-yoshinos, and millions were planted to mark Japan’s victory against Russia in 1905.

Both for an imperial government eager to unify and rebrand its country, and for snapshot purposes, the somei-yoshino is ideal. The trees are self-incompatible – they cannot self-pollinate and are only propagated by grafting. As a result, they are clones with identical DNA which tend to bloom at the same time. The timing varies around the country but the five-petalled flowers appear en masse in each region. One 2018 study found a sharp spike in Instagram posts in early April at Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, one of Japan’s Three Great Gardens.

Kinuta Park in Tokyo is famous for the sakura displays in its 96 acres
Kinuta Park in Tokyo is famous for the sakura displays in its 96 acres © Daisuke Hamada

The hegemony of the somei-yoshino puts Japan’s 600 other varieties, with subtler and less regimented displays of sakura, into the shade. Some gardeners, including the venerable sakuramori “cherry guardians” of the former imperial capital Kyoto, worry that it reduces biodiversity and encourages disease. “People think they can do as they please, but you have to strike a balance with nature,” said Kyoto gardener Sano Toemon, then 90, in 2018.

Its dominance would be even more pronounced but for Collingwood “Cherry” Ingram, a gentleman gardener who first visited Japan in 1902, became enchanted by its wild cherry trees and brought 50 varieties to the UK. Abe describes in her book “Cherry” Ingram, The Englishman Who Saved Japan’s Blossoms his disillusionment on a return visit in 1926 at the stultifying rise of the somei-yoshino. He embarked on a campaign to repatriate, from his garden to Kyoto, wild cherry varieties that were in danger of dying out.

Yoyogi Park is usually one of Tokyo’s most popular hanami spots
Yoyogi Park is usually one of Tokyo’s most popular hanami spots © Daisuke Hamada

Seventy-five years since the end of the second world war and the imposition of its peace constitution, the association of sakura with military sacrifice has faded, and the efforts of Ingram and Japanese gardeners to restore ancient horticultural traditions have had a salutary effect. There are 800 cherry trees of 50 varieties in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, one of its most cherished hanami spots since the 16th century. Even so, when spring arrives, clouds of somei-yoshino blossom dominate the landscape.

For a tree that is closely identified with Japan, the cherry is a stark aesthetic contrast to the country’s most famous contribution to horticulture, the formal garden. Rather than being devoted to flowers, a Japanese garden is dense and filled with shrubs, hand-trimmed moss and stone paths. More effort can be put into raking gravel in lines than creating colourful displays.

Chidorigafuchi in Tokyo
Chidorigafuchi in Tokyo © Daisuke Hamada

Cherry trees line the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, but the style of gardening at the city’s historic temples and shrines is more sober. “Japanese gardens are for contemplation, not pleasure,” says Mark Hovane, a Japanese-garden specialist and historian based in Kyoto. “They tend to avoid big herbaceous borders, annuals and jolliness. There is very little space – it is a highly pruned version of nature, an idealised form.”

Sakura serves another purpose in a restrained society – mass psychological release. “Gardeners say that only idiots prune cherry trees. They do not take to it and it does not help,” says Hovane. “Cherries are all about the luxuriousness of the blossom, especially the somei-yoshino. Hanami parties in the Edo period were for everyone to go wild. It is the one time of year when letting your hair down is sanctioned.”

But nature sprung a surprise this year, with the coronavirus pandemic curbing the picnics and frustrating people who had looked forward throughout winter to the usual party. Nature also changed the season: after an unusually mild January, the famously co-ordinated somei-yoshinos started to bloom in Tokyo in mid-March, two weeks ahead of schedule. This allowed some celebrations before the coronavirus clampdown, but climate change is a worry.

Japan was already unnerved by its weather, having been struck by one of the biggest typhoons in decades in October, which inflicted destruction across the country and killed 91 people. Early spring was less damaging but meant the blossom did not coincide exactly with the start of school and work years; a permanent change would disrupt traditions that are woven into Japan’s psyche. The somei-yoshino is already more vulnerable than mountain varieties, with a shorter lifespan.

So a pronounced sense of mono no aware hung over Japan’s sakura season. The mood was anxious, although the lockdown gave the Japanese more space, and the flowers were lovely. By the time a state of emergency came in April, the blossom was being swept off the streets and was drifting in slicks down the Meguro river. No one knows when coronavirus will fade, but history shows one thing: spring will come again.

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