Full bloom

“If I were asked to explain the Japanese spirit, I would say it is wild cherry blossoms glowing in the morning sun!” — Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801), nativist thinker and poet


The cherry blossom is not just another pretty flower. Pause to consider, as you feast, drink and carol beneath the blushing petals this season, how ancient a rite of spring your frolics are perpetuating.

Not infinitely ancient — the Nara Period (710-784), being Chinese in orientation, imitated China in preferring the darker, more fragrant and more assertive plum blooming a few weeks earlier on similarly leafless branches.

It was courtiers of the succeeding Heian Period (794-1185) who began making of ethereal sakura (cherry blossoms) what they later became in all their glory — living poems, living symbols of beauty, life, evanescence, death, “Japanese spirit.”

But how stately, how ceremoniously elegant Heian celebrations were in comparison with our modern madcap revels!

“… the festival of the cherry blossoms took place in the Grand Hall. The empress and the crown prince were seated to the left and right of the throne. … Adepts at Chinese poetry, princes and high courtiers and others, drew lots to fix the rhyme schemes for their poems.

“I have drawn ‘spring,’ said Genji, his voice finely resonant in even so brief a statement.

” … The emperor had of course ordered the concert to be planned with the greatest care. ‘Spring Warbler, ‘ which came as the sun was setting, was uncommonly fine.” — Court lady Murasaki Shikibu in her novel “The Tale of Genji” (11th century)

The sakura banquet retained its aristocratic aura until the rambunctious Edo Period (1603-1867), when commoners, in their coarse and spontaneous way, began to ape their betters.

Long before that, in the 14th century, the priest Kenko, in jottings known to posterity as the “Grasses of Idleness,” complained of “rustic boors who take all pleasure grossly. They squirm their way through the crowd to get under the trees; they stare at the blossoms with eyes for nothing else; they drink s


The cherries’ only fault: the crowds that gather when they bloom” — Saigyo, 12th-century poet