Japan is awash with cherry blossom mania. Every year for a couple months every tourism pamphlet to poster, news channel to weather forecast is overcome with this fever. Minutely detailed maps of cherry blossom locations include gradations from bud to blossom to snowing petals updated daily. Photo contests of the cherry blossoms are held and often televised. Viewers send in photos, comments, and sometimes even haikus.
The fervor with which the entire culture pursues this aesthetic appreciation was deeply surprising. I was even suspicious of the extent. However, this dedication is religious. This appreciation is worship. The viewers do not just look and move on. Drinking in the beauty to complete intoxication, they live completely absorbed in the present aesthetic. Cherry blossom viewing symbolizes Japanese Zen. The cherry blossoms in a grand magnificence and soothing majesty then quickly drops its petals. From bloom to doom, the blossom lived and died beautifully. As Okakura Tenshin, in the Book of Tea, says, “to die beautifully” is the highest achievement. The soft clouds of pink blossoms weaken and the slightest breeze tears them apart. A slow, beautifully macabre snow of petals. Beauty of impermanence. Even the greatest of beauties will fade. A meditation on impermanence.
Therefore, a Japan experience is not complete without a cherry blossom viewing experience. Finally, I got that chance. I received an invite to go see the sakura festival in Shimokitayama. I had heard nothing of this place and the few pictures seemed attractive but not impressive.
However, Shimokitayama is the best kept secret of all of Japan’s cherry blossom locations. Nestled in a mountain valley, built on the riverbed, this city of 900 without a train station preserves a true cherry blossom viewing experience. No crowds. No annoying drunks. No booths crowding out the view – just pure aestheticism.
As we descended from the twisting mountain road from Owase into Shimokitayama valley, a river of pink and white cherry blossoms greeted us. It seemed as it the clouds had descended and come to rest across the town. As we came into town, fluffy, fluttering white blossoms surrounded us. A tunnel of soft white ever so often snowed a little bit of its treasured petals upon us. The experience was surreal. How could this be real? How can anything be so beautiful – so calming?