Chasing the sakura – by leesan

Cherry blossoms have a special place in Japanese culture because of what they symbolise – a time of renewal, the impermanence of beauty and so much more.

Cherry blossom season in Japan is also the best time for Japanese wedding celebrations, as seen here at the Kyoto Heian Jingu Shrine Garden. — photos: leesan

AFTER so many years, I finally managed to return to my “home” of sorts before the month of March ended, for the longmissed Hanami season in Japan.

Currently, central and southern parts of Japan are teeming with flowers and chirping birds ushering in the glorious season of spring. Although it has been said that this year will see even adverse effects of climate change, causing the cherry trees to blossom seven days earlier than anticipated, visitors from across the world are still flocking to the Land of the Rising Sun with a grateful heart and much appreciation.

These visitors are all prepared to walk with excited locals along the creeks and lakes in parks across the country, to enjoy the beauty of the blossoming trees, and even to lie cosily on sakura petal-carpeted floor!

My friend from Okayama, 22-year-old Chiharu, texted me saying, “I’m now riding a modified motorbike on the pathway leading south to Kyushu Island to chase the sakura!”

Yes, chasing the sakura is one of the items you can usually find on a Japanese person’s bucket list.

Chiharu added, “This time, I will go around all the major hanami sites in the seven prefectures of Kyushu, and see what rare cherry species I’ll be able to see.

“After that, I’ll ride across the Kanmon Straits back to Honshu and onward to the four prefectures of Shikoku, before crossing the Seto Bridge into Kobe, Okayama, Mie, Nara and Kyoto. I will end the trip in Osaka.”

In short, Chiharu will need a total of 15 days to complete her sakura-chasing journey this year. She had extended an invitation to me earlier: “Lee-san, you might want to get a motorbike so we can meet up under the cherry trees beside the Maizuru Gate and start our sakura-chasing adventure together.”

I told her, “How I wish to join you, Chiharu-san, so that we can count each blossom together, and see how many species of sakura we manage to get. I would also love to see cherry blossoms covering the entire ground, as well as to savour a sakura bento with you under the cherry trees.”

The Mayor of Kumamoto City, Mr.Kazufumi Onishi(sitting on the left) gave us a very warm welcome. Thank you very much for the kind gesture, we were deeply touched by your warmth and hospitality during our visit.

We know that cherry blossoms have a very short lifespan – seven days – after their full bloom. Swept by the wind and rain, the flowers fall onto the ground or stream like snowflakes, presenting a breathtakingly beautiful yet poignant image. As such, people will treasure the short moments when the cherry blossoms explode into colours, and enjoy and appreciate every bit of it. This is when all our earthly worries and sadness momentarily vanish.

Human life is full of twists and bends and instead of worrying about every single thing, why not take things in our stride and believe that everything will eventually get better?

As a “sakura fanatic”, I have never failed to make a “date” with the cherry blossoms in over three decades – except, of course in the past three years of the pandemic. Many times I have travelled to Kyushu in March, to Honshu in early April, Aomori in late April and Hokkaido in May for the local Sakura Matsuri festivals, tracking the blossoms all the way from the south to the north. All throughout my sakura-hunting travels, I will be savouring local delicacies, sipping umeshu and even soaking up all the goodness of onsen baths. What else could I ask for in life?

I would not be exaggerating when I tell you that what I thought of the most during those dark days of the pandemic was the sakura season and all the good things that came with it.

Chasing the sakura is not just a “non-essential luxury”, but a valued rendezvous where the heart and spirit meet. Because of that, it is not difficult to understand why the Japanese people, including Chiharu, have religiously devoted their lives to the cherry blossoms. For centuries, cherry blossoms have occupied a prominent place in the hearts of every Japanese person who is enthralled by its poignant beauty.

I replied Chiharu’s message: “Sorry, my dear. I don’t think I can meet you this time around because I’m already here in Kyushu Island with 32 Malaysian travel buddies, and our sakura-chasing route totals over 2,000km! I could instead help you to recce a place and send you not updates along our route in Kyushu.”

Even though we are not able to travel together, we have both chosen Fukuoka as the starting point of our sakura chasing journey. The Ohori and Maizuru Parks in Fukuoka serve as the hanami benchmarks for Kyushu. This is where all sakura chasers must come!

About 80% of the cherry trees in Japan belong to the Somei Yoshino species, but in Fukuoka, they have also planted tens of thousands of colourful tulips to adorn this magnificent city of four million inhabitants. What an elegant combo.

Spring comes early in Kyushu, though. As I write this, the Sakura Matsuri is happening over Fukuoka, Beppu, Yufuin, Kirishima and Kumamoto.

I texted Chiharu again. “Hey, Chiharusan, watch out for rain over the next few days. We are going to Hiroshima now; see you at the ‘Rock’ (a secret place that she and I share) in Osaka Castle.”

Note: Before the end of March, at the invitation of the mayor of Kumamoto, Kazufumi Onishi, our group of 32 sakura-chasers was joined by the city’s mascot Kumamon and three other “Bafuku Samurais” outside Kumamoto Castle. We were elated and our hearts blossomed just like the warm Kyushu sun.

The columnist (in orange jacket) and his Malaysian travel buddies at Miyazaki’s amigoya Castle.

Leesan, the founder of Apple Vacations, has travelled to 137 countries, seven continents and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

Published in STAR 2, 15 Apr 2023