This story appears in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Zen of Petals A veil of wire protects this hallowed weeping cherry tree in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park, where locals gather in spring to take in the blossoms. Daytime viewings are called hanami, nighttime ones yozakura. Shortly after the flowering peaked, Diane Cook and Len Jenshel—there to photograph the magic of gardens after dark—learned that her father’s health was deteriorating. Preparing to go home, the couple paused to watch petals blowing off the trees, and found new meaning in Japan’s custom of taking time to enjoy the short-lived blooms.
Behind the Lens
Q: This immense 40-foot tree is much revered in Japan. Why?
A: DIANE Standing there is like going to a mountaintop in Tibet or India and finding this elder who’s going to grant you wisdom. The tree has its own sakuramori—cherry-tree doctor—who tends to its care. The wires help keep birds off of it.
A: LEN It’s known as the elder or grandfather tree. It was transplanted in 1949 from a seed of a nearly 200-year-old tree.
Q: You said you found solace in the wisdom of the cherry trees. What wisdom was that?
A: DIANE On the last day, before going to the airport, we went to get a last look. It was breezy, and the cherry blossoms were starting to come down. I sat in this grove, and tears were just rolling down my face. We fully understood then what the Japanese had been practicing for centuries—that in our busy lives we need to make time to appreciate life’s ephemeral nature.
A: LEN Diane’s father died shortly after our return. Life passes, we go on—it’s part of the cycle of life. It didn’t make the grief easier, but somehow I could place it in context.