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Cherry trees in bloom over the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto (Photograph by Zahirudin Rahim, Alamy)

Letter from Kyoto: Cherry Blossoms in Old Japan

I’m sitting on a tatami mat in my traditional inn, drinking a celebratory Kirin beer and gazing at the full moon though the cherry blossom boughs that arc over the ryokan’s entrance. I feel like a character in a haiku.

It’s the end of a glorious two-week immersion in Old Japan. When I arrived, Kyoto seemed to have erupted overnight into a sea of brilliant blossoms, fluffy pink clouds massing over canals and rivers. On my first night I wandered in a jet-lagged haze through the Higashiyama-Gion neighborhood that I love, all closet-sized shops, tiny winding lanes, and timeless temples and shrines. Lost in the hushed, lantern-lit passageways, I wasn’t sure what century I’d landed in.

When I reached grand Maruyama Park, spotlights illuminated one of the most famous cherry trees in all Japan, a venerable shidarezakura, a weeping variety resembling a fountain spraying petals in every direction. Throngs of 21st-century admirers snapped photos, while a half-minute walk away, locals expressed their admiration as the Japanese have for centuries, with hanami blossom-viewing parties: sitting on mats and feasting, dancing, and occasionally exulting in song to the star-budded sky.

Another half-minute walk away, strings of red and white lanterns demarcated a brightly lit area where low tables had been placed on platforms and encircled with cushions for seating. Here waiters hustled between smoky, temptingly scented food shacks, serving a ceaseless flow of noodles, rice balls, and skewered meats to families, couples, work colleagues, students, and tourists who had all gathered congenially elbow to elbow to toast the petals–and, as the night soared, each other–with an equally endless flow of sake and beer.

The cherry trees had blossomed once again, and all was right with the world.

I spent most of the next day ambling along the Philosopher’s Path, a paved route that borders a narrow canal from Ginkakuji to Nanzenji temples. The canal is lined with cherry trees, and on this day their full-blossomed beauty was so exquisite that the very air seemed to vibrate with delight.

Carts selling cherry blossom-flavored ice cream, mochi, rice crackers, even mousse seemed to have materialized overnight. Sitting on a canal-side bench under the boughs, licking my own cherry-blossom ice cream, I opened a tattered journal and read a passage I’d written one April afternoon 20 years before:

“This Japanese rite of spring is a celebration whose sense and significance are at once social and spiritual, a glorious affirmation of the present in the effusive, efflorescent beauty–at once individual and collective–of the blossoms, and a transcendent renewal in the tangible demonstration that the universe is proceeding as it should, and once again blessing the world with these offerings of evanescence and eternity.”


Now it is two weeks later; the petals have mostly fallen. And just as the cherry blossoms’ short lives are winding down, my time in Japan is ending, too. Tomorrow I will be bound for home, San Francisco.

I open my journal and write:

“This afternoon I was standing under the cherry trees outside my ryokan when a sudden wind gusted and I was immediately enveloped in a sakura-hubuki, a cherry petal snowstorm. Surrounded by the dancing petals, soft and softly scented, I found myself thinking about ends and beginnings, surrender and continuity.”

The cherry blossoms are nature’s way of teaching us to surrender, to embrace our inevitable end, I thought, as the petals tickled my forehead and cheeks. The petals fall each spring, and are reborn each spring.

Life is a fleeting dance of moments, each one ending and in that ending, beginning again.

The Japanese–and all of us who come to Japan to pay homage to these boughs–celebrate the blooms for this very impermanence; the fact that their fragile beauty will soon fade makes them all the more precious.

I take another sip of Kirin and think, Is this not true of everyone we love and everything we do?

Outside my ryokan, Kyoto old and new celebrates in the light of the spring moon. And on the Philosopher’s Path that winds within, the boughs continue to bloom.

> Here are four books that present passageways into Old Japan:

  • The Way of the 88 Temples, by Robert Sibley, offers an intimate account of a two-month journey along Japan’s most famous pilgrimage route: the 88-temple circuit around the island of Shikoku, which was established in the ninth century by the revered scholar-monk Kōbō Daishi. Of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is the place where traditional ways and spirit still most robustly abide, and Sibley’s rural wanderings provide enriching insights.
  • In The Roads to Sata, Alan Booth vividly evokes his 2,000-mile, 128-day journey on foot from Japan’s northernmost point, Cape Soya in Hokkaido, to Cape Sata in the south. As he recounts his misadventures on this epic trek, Booth, who resided in Japan for more than 20 years until his death in 1993, also engagingly reveals the realities of off-the-tourist-track Japan.
  • Donald Richie’s Inland Sea is a glorious, idiosyncratic work that weaves together essays and journal entries from numerous trips to the little-visited islands of the Inland Sea. A renowned expert on Japanese cinema and culture who lived in Tokyo for 50 years, Richie is a deeply knowledgeable and sympathetic guide whose observations and musings unlock the riches and rigors of Japanese life.
  • Old Kyoto is not a work of narrative nonfiction or fiction but rather a guidebook dedicated to celebrating the best traditional shops, restaurants, and inns of Kyoto. It is also a rewarding entryway into the crevices and corners where ancient traditions still thrive. Written with grace, humor, and eloquence by long-time Kyoto-phile Diane Durston, it’s an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to appreciate the enduring presence of Old Japan.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited several award-winning travel-writing anthologies, including Better Than Fiction. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

> Related:

Spirited Away in Kyoto,” by Pico Iyer (November 2012 issue, Traveler magazine)