It’s spring in the Northwest and the flowering plum and cherry trees are luminous against the gray-green of the firs. I never see the return of the cherry blossoms without getting homesick for Kyoto.
I had heard much of Japan’s cherry blossom time before I moved to Japan in the early 1980s, but I had lived in southern California too long to expect much show from spring. So I wasn’t disappointed, my first spring in Kyoto, when the cold wind and rain beat the blossoms to the ground almost as soon as they appeared.
The next spring was a long time in coming. It had been a brutal winter and it lingered late into April. Even the cherry blossoms remained tightly furled against the cold. But suddenly one day it was warm and dry and clear and the cherries were waiting. They exploded like pink fireworks. Overnight, every branch was loaded with blossoms and the air flickered with the drifting pink petals. The air stream from passing cars and buses whirled the petals piled in the street high into the air, like confetti from a long overdue celebration. Every tree, no matter how small, seemed to host its own party. The men were red-faced from sake, the women gossiped among the bento boxes, and the children, as giddy as their parents, ran amok.
I strolled with a friend through an arcade of huge ancient cherries and was enchanted. The light coming through the dense canopy of petals was pink. Even the faint scent of the blossoms seemed pink. I reached for the petals as they drifted in the air and felt like a child reaching for dust motes. I was as giddy as anyone in the parties under the trees. And I hadn’t had any sake.
I finally understood the Japanese rapture over cherry blossoms. The coming of the blossoms meant we had survived Kyoto’s wet, raw, bitter cold. I’d flirted with pneumonia that winter, and been sicker than I’d ever remembered. The friend I lived with had been away on a business trip, so I had been alone through the worst of it, with only dark thoughts of the possibility of my death haunting me. I had recovered slowly. I’d finally been able to venture out in February when the flowering plums were blossoming under snow-capped temple tiles. But they had only hinted at spring. The cherry blossoms gave us a guarantee: Winter was over. Joy was in order.
Every year when the cherry trees bloom here in the Northwest, I remember that spring in Japan, when I was glad to still be alive. I remember walking through fragrant pink air eating mochi, sweet rice cakes, wrapped in scented leaves from the sakura, the cherry trees. And in my heart, I reach again for the petals falling through the warm pink light.