My arrival in Japan in late March to work on a story about luxury train travel (assigned pre-earthquake/tsunami) felt like the ultimate irony. Here was a country I know well, experiencing its worst catastrophe since World War II, and yet I was zooming through the southern Japanese countryside at 180 miles per hour (300 km) on the latest Shinkansen Bullet train, far away from the destruction of the quake zone. As soon as I finished my assignment, I immediately headed north to document the painful process of rebuilding a shattered country.
The night before I left for Tohoku, I experienced a 7.4 level aftershock, during which my high-rise hotel swayed like a boat at sea. It was a bizarre sensation, the first time I had personally sensed that things were still churning below Japan. Up until then, as far as I could tell, if it wasn’t exactly business as usual in Tokyo, it was certainly close to it — offices were open, trains were running, commuters bustled in and out of the city. But things had definitely changed. The signature neon lights of Shinjuku were dimmed. Salarymen headed home earlier than usual, thanks to rolling blackouts and concerns about train cancellations. Elevators in subways, hotels and office buildings were turned off to conserve power.
But one of the most obvious clues that things were radically different was the absence of the usual raucous crowds sipping sake under a cloud of cherry blossoms in Ueno and other parks around the city. The earthquake occurred just as Japan’s fabled cherry trees had begun to bloom, and the prime minister had called for restraint in celebrating the occasion this year, out of respect for the victims of the disaster. The decision to curtail cherry blossom festivals all over Japan was met with some opposition, as the Japanese have made a ritual of toasting the cherry blossom for a thousand years.
It is tied to Japan’s cultural identity, as much as the samurai or Zen Buddhism. You find images of cherry blossoms everywhere there – in art, poetry, tea cups, kimono silks, and tv commercials.. To the samurai, petals falling at the peak of their short-lived beauty symbolized the warrior ideal. They elevated hanami, or cherry-blossom viewing parties, to a high art. To Buddhists, cherry blossoms embody the spirit of mono no aware (the pathos of things), the Japanese sense that good times and bad come and go; the earth may shake and giant waves may sweep away towns, but somehow, the cycle comes around again, and after the winter comes the spring, and the cherry trees bloom again. But only for a week. Until next year.
The cherry trees, unmindful of this sad world,
Have burst into bloom.
Gleam of blossoms in the treetops
On a moonlit night.