Cherry blossoms must be the most written about flower in history, and certainly the most photographed. But since thousands of people, perhaps millions in Japan, keep taking photos, I suppose writers can keep writing about them, too.
I walked through Shinjuku Gyoen Park the other day. Even on a cloudy, windy Thursday afternoon, the elegant walkways were packed. It was impossible to find any line of sight to take a photo without strangers cramming the frame. What other flower is so loved that everyone photobombs everyone else, and just shrugs and smiles about it?
One answer is that cherry trees are already popular. But they’re popular not in the way of some music video promoted by a corporate ad account, but naturally popular. Like rice. Like smiling. They have a natural appeal that needs little promotion. PR companies must be envious. Cherry trees are everywhere in Tokyo and only advertise themselves.
Another reason is that cherry trees seem so alive. They have an individuality, a flexibility, and somehow hold a relation to humanity that make them easy to love. The long low branches bend down to the ground as if meeting us earth-bound humans halfway. The higher branches urge us upward, away from ourselves. Each cherry tree is a meeting, and a journey.
Cherry trees also look good set against other trees, and actually, set against anything. They go well with all shades of green, and every color of sky. The soft, puffed petals go nicely against the sharp spikes of pine tree needles, and bowl over the other shrubs, bushes and trees that dare to flower at the same time.
Cherry trees look great set against water–ponds or rivers or moats. The small petals floating on top turn the murky water into a pedestal for their tiny beauty. Cherry trees even light up the dirt, packed down from years, decades, centuries of passersby and drinking parties. Even the trees planted on dividers inside a driving school’s practice course near my house look good against the concrete and learner cars.
I love watching people taking photos of people as they nestle themselves visually into the blossoms. At the park the other day, an old woman with a cane vainly plumped and pulled her hair, not too old to want to look good. She scolded her husband for not getting a good shot. Kids posed for a few seconds, then ran off to play tag, ride piggyback and yell and laugh a little wilder than usual. A couple of kids blew soap bubbles, normally mesmerizing, but the bubbles couldn’t compete with the petals.
The foreigners walking with camera gear in hand looked stunned. Their multicultural “wow’s” quickly ran out of energy, even if their fingers kept pressing the shutter button. They seemed to slip into a sort of awed contemplation of what is so obviously a simple, great idea—planting cherry trees all over the place.
Another part of their appeal is how well cherry trees dance. They are always in motion. The outer branches flex in the lightest breeze and with just the right looseness, like a young, limber dancer. They sway and bounce and shake off petals in the wind, a few at a time, bending far before recoiling, the limbs sprightly.
People always packing around the fullest, most perfectly blossoming trees makes me wonder if there is such a thing as universal beauty.
The trunks, though, have nothing of youth. They are ancient, deep-rooted, gnarled and mossed over. The trunks look like several trunks cobbled together. They twist at unexpected junctures and thicken, bulge or break off. Unlike the youthful upper limbs, the trunks of cherry trees show the struggle of their growth, the stages of their upward crawl over the years, better with every year.
The color is intense. The white, or pink but mostly white, forms a pointillist mirage. Your eyes and your mind fill in the open spaces between the dots of petals. The dots of white are more exciting than solid white would be, perhaps because the mind connects them to create a color that is less there than imagined. The dappled white shifts from glossier to flatter to electric, from darker to greener to whiter as the sunlight changes through the clouds coming in at new angles. When the clouds recede, the color is almost painful.
People always pile up at the prettiest trees, so there was no hope of getting an individual shot that day. I noticed people took an extra minute to prepare in front of the prettiest ones, as if they felt the need to look just right when the background was so spectacular. Those taking the photos looked up and down and around, as if distracted from the face of their lover, family member or friend by the flowers around them. Those taking selfies wiggled back and forth, careful to position themselves just right.
And though every cherry tree is photo-ready, people always packing around the fullest, most perfectly blossoming trees makes me wonder if there is such a thing as universal beauty. A glance around at the couples seems to suggest everyone has their own taste in what’s good-looking in the human realm. But with the cherry trees, everyone seems to agree on which ones are best, flocking there like birds to a feeder, carp to crumbs tossed in the pond.
We take away more than a good shot or two. We take away beauty.
Standing there being photographed, it’s as if for a moment, we touch the most sublime beauty. We feed off it. We want to take a photo with that, to wrap ourselves in it, and be as close as we can for the moment posing and for the forever posed. We take away more than a good shot or two. We take away beauty.
Then, we shake ourselves free, check the camera screen, glance at the tree, and the other people, and walk on, knowing the trees are behind us now as we turn to our other concerns, and knowing, too, we can stand in front of the cherry trees again next year when they’ll have grown even more intense and impressive and beautiful, urging us to do the same.
(April 8, 2017)