Visiting Tokyo to See the Cherry Blossom Spring Flower Bloom
  • Share:

Rites of Spring: Visiting Japan When the Cherry Blossoms Bloom

By Don George | April 19, 2024

OSAKA; APRIL 7, 2024

I have just finished four glorious weeks exploring Old Japan in Kyoto and on the island of Shikoku on back-to-back GeoEx trips. At the end of the second trip, I came to this exuberant city of commerce and cuisine for a three-day change of pace, and fortuitously, during this time the cherry trees have exploded into pink splendor.

When I awoke the morning after I arrived, the pink boughs seemed to have popped everywhere. On a 20-minute walk to a shop to buy a phone charger, my path was paved with pink petals. When I went to do my laundry in an inconspicuous neighborhood laundromat, the nearby children’s park was graced with five fully blooming trees.

My hotel room looks out on Osaka Castle, and the park around the castle and the river that runs by it have proven to be the center of the cherry blossom celebration. For the past two days, endless streams of people – hundreds, perhaps thousands – have surged through the castle grounds and camped under the pink rows of river-framing trees.

Cherry blossoms along a pedestrian lane in Osaka, Japan

Surveying this scene, I have been transported back to my first spring in Japan, 46 years ago, when everything Japanese was new to me. Fresh out of graduate school and ensconced at a suburban Tokyo university on a two-year teaching fellowship, I had been in Japan for about half a year when, in early March, anticipations of and predictions about the opening of the buds began. As the weeks passed, these built to a crescendo, and by the end of the month, it seemed that virtually every conversation somehow ended in speculation about the flowers.

When the first buds bloomed in the south, a media cherry blossom bonanza began. Television newscasters and newspaper reporters tracked the pink-and-white trail as it slowly spread along the length of Kyushu and Shikoku, then moved through southern Honshu toward Kyoto and Tokyo.

At first, I was puzzled by all this: What could possibly obsess an entire nation this way?  Then one morning, virtually the entire campus where I was living and teaching–a place famed for its cherry trees–had overnight transformed into a fragile, fleecy shower of impossibly delicate white-and-pink blossoms. It was magnificent and breathtaking–exquisitely ethereal and sensual at the same time.

And it was as if all of Tokyo had blossomed at the same moment: Wherever I went, the incomparable flowers were, too–sometimes a single tree in solitary splendor by the bank of a river, sometimes a festive procession along a downtown street, and sometimes, on the grounds of a park, row upon row creating the effect of a fluffy pink cloud.

Public park in springtime during cherry blossom season, Yoyogi park, Tokyo, Japan

Until that time, all I knew was what experts and essayists had taught me:

The first lesson was that cherry blossoms so suited the Japanese sensibility that they had become an unofficial symbol of the country (the official symbol being the chrysanthemum), and that the word for flower, hana, had become synonymous with the cherry blossom itself.

The second was that cherry-blossom-viewing parties, ohanami, had been started by the aristocracy in the eighth and ninth centuries and had evolved into extravagant ritualized excursions; these parties had been wholeheartedly adopted by commoners in the 16th century, and were still so important that the country virtually shut down for the few weeks in April when the blossoms bloom.

The third was that the flowers are celebrated for both their beauty and their brevity, which have come to symbolize for the Japanese the haunting and glorious impermanence of life.

These textbook lessons burst into palpable pink reality that first spring in Japan. And now, 46 springs later, they are blooming all around me again.

A half hour ago I left my room to swim with the stream on the castle grounds, and now I’m sitting on the riverside under a sun-showered canopy of pink branches.

All around me are groups of people representing the social spectrum of Osaka. Young parents carefully spread colorful picnic cloths and pose their toddlers under the boughs; even younger couples preen and perch their meticulously coiffed pooches.

To my immediate left a half-dozen silver-haired citizens are sipping cans of beer, tucking their chopsticks into multilayered lacquer boxes bursting with sushi, rice balls, fried chicken, pickled vegetables, boiled eggs wrapped in tempura-fried fish paste, and seaweed salads. The red-faced patriarch of the group has just clapped his hands and announced something, and everyone has erupted into raucous laughter.

High school students in blue sportscoats and tartan skirts arrive and carefully unfold a bright blue tarp. They place it ever so gently on the grass, then primly take off their shoes, arrange them neatly on the perimeter of the tarp, set big backpacks around the outskirts of the tarp and then ceremonially sit down, open their backpacks, and take out exquisitely wrapped sandwiches, plastic bottles of green tea, and pinkly packaged slices of strawberry short cake.  As they take neat bites and celebrate the scene with shining eyes, their giggles rise like blessings to the sky.

The air is warm and soft and lightly perfumed, and as laughter lullabies around me, I lean back and close my eyes….

Cherry blossoms along the river in Osaka

When I awake, afternoon has deepened into dusk, and lamplight blushes the boughs against a deep blue sky. A blue-lit sightseeing boat slowly plies the river, its passengers oohing and aahing at the petaled scene.

To my right now, a twentysomething woman in an impossibly short skirt, sporting a shiny silver stud in her lower lip, strides up to a low-hanging branch and strikes a pose; her leather-jacketed boyfriend takes out a bejeweled iPhone, focuses, and snaps.

Behind me, eight young men in white shirts, ties, and black suits arrive bearing bulging plastic bags. They exuberantly spread a bright blue tarp, carefully untie and arrange their black shoes around the tarp, take off and fold their coats, sit cross-legged, and pass around cans of beer. Then as one they pop open the tops, lean forward, and clink their cans together. “Kanpai!”

As I revel in this scene, a lone petal twirls onto my palm. I raise its pliant softness to my nose, and its faint perfume transports me to that long-ago spring afternoon in Tokyo, one epiphany-step on the two-year path that changed my life.

On that first spring I wrote in my journal: “This communal celebration is at once social and spiritual, a glorious affirmation of the present in the effusive, efflorescent beauty–at once individual and collective–of the blossoms, and a transcendent renewal in the tangible demonstration that the universe is proceeding as it should, and once again blessing the world with these offerings of evanescence and eternity.”

Forty-six years before, at the very beginning of my own life-long Japanese journey, I saw this celebration with wide, enchanted eyes. Now, more of that journey lies behind me than ahead — and yet….

And yet, this scene seems as fresh and astonishing to me now as it did then. The petals bloom, and I am 24 years old once more, the youthful me a pink presage of the blooms to come, the old me twirling into youth again.

Once again, I open my tattered journal and write: “This blooming is always around us, outside and within: It is the fleeting gift of spring, without end.”

Cherry blossoms in Japan
Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Olga Albuquerwue
Olga Albuquerwue
1 month ago

Don your writing is so pleasant and nice to read! Thanks so much! I am already missing Japan and enjoy going back to my tour, flying along with wonderful remembrances from it and from our spectacular group!

Julie Jessum
Julie Jessum
1 month ago

What a beautiful expression of your Japanese memories- I, too, spent four years in Osaka, Japan as a young 20’s English teacher- amazed at the exquisite beauty of the cherry blossom season.
Thank you for sharing. Many of your descriptions match my thoughts and memories to a T. 🌸🌸

Margaret Wagner
Margaret Wagner
1 month ago

Don, your writing is as beautiful as the blossoms described. “Giggles rise like blessings to the sky” and “lamplight blushes the boughs” — gorgeous. Thank you for sharing the scenes with us!

Diana M Chang
Diana M Chang
1 month ago

A beautiful, heartwarming article. You’ve lived an enchanted life. I’ve enjoyed the cherry blossoms in Japan 3 time. One time, a band played the St. Louis Blues in the park. Such a strange juxtaposition. Last year, i took my two daughter with me. They two were entranced. Who could not love a people that takes the time to celebrate such fleeting beauty.
Lucky people who will be traveling with you this year.

Cheryl Mueller
Cheryl Mueller
1 month ago
  1. Magnificent writing, Don. I was transported to that beautiful scene and immersed in the beauty of your experiences. Such a lovely day in Japan in Springtime. If only life were endless travels…
Patty Connelly
Patty Connelly
1 month ago

Don, thank you for this beautiful poem to Spring and Cherry Blossoms in Japan. I look back on the life-changing journey with you in Shikoku last year, when I was gently guided through a culture I had approached with fear and perhaps disdain. Now I’m hoping you and Geo Ex organize your trip so northern Japan next year so my awakening continues.
Thank you Don.

Currie Barron
Currie Barron
1 month ago

Thank You, Don, for your beautiful writing ~ sharing this spring’s cherry blossom season with us with fresh appreciation and deep perspective. Tom & I are so grateful that we could experience cherry blossom season with you in Kyoto and Shikoku in 2016 ~ the “fleeting gift of spring, without end”. Blessings!

GeoEx eBook:
The Best of Wanderlust

An Anthology of Travel Stories
Edited by Don George