A few years ago I decided I wanted a new rhythm for my life, one that wasn’t determined by a clock. I even went to therapy to address my anxiety about time. “There is no tiger,” the therapist told me. There was no imminent threat in the form of a predator, no emergency. I retorted that my metaphorical tiger was time—I could not create more of it. So, in the spring of 2023, time on the brain, intent on making some memories, I took a trip to Japan to chase the brief blooming of the sakura, or cherry blossoms. I wanted to better understand the country’s celebration of the ephemeral. I wanted a different way to think about time.
Sakura are deciduous. Their English name is a misnomer, as most do not produce cherries. In the early 20th century, Japan presented thousands of cherry blossom trees to Washington, D.C., as symbols of living friendship. The trees now thrive everywhere from Christchurch, New Zealand, to Macon, Georgia. But the cherry blossom is ubiquitous in Japan, marking significant shrines and temples, lining rivers and canals, and gracing city parks. There’s a whole industry behind the celebration of these trees; these short, commemorated cycles of Japan’s floral fireworks epitomize the phrase “for a limited time only.” Retailers offer their special cherry blossom treats and merchandise for just a few weeks.
“I would venture to say that it is like the stars and stripes of the American flag,” says Tokyo Tourism Representative Hisashi Tsumura. “The cherry blossom as the national flower of Japan is far more recognized than the rose for the United States.”
In Japan, the emergence of sakura means winter is over. Multiple variables are responsible for the buds’ opening: warm winds and temperatures, precipitation. Planning my trip, I chose three locations (Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto) with different forecasted bloom dates, in hopes that somewhere, at some point, the trees would be in full bloom and I would be able to participate in hanami, the custom of viewing and contemplating cherry blossoms.
A full sakura bloom lasts up to one week before withering and becoming fragile. These blossoms are a reminder that life is brief. “With sakura’s extremely short blossom time, some may feel temporality, others may feel mortality, and others may feel gratitude to be able to enjoy the flowers,” Tsumura tells me. “I think that’s what makes the cherry blossom a special flower for all of us.”
My plane touches down in Tokyo at the end of March, and I wonder if I am already late. The winter was slightly warmer than usual, and the city’s blooms arrived nine days earlier than predicted. In the taxi from the airport to my hotel, we travel beside the Meguro River, and I catch a glimpse of the trees through the rain. Sporting their blooms, they look like cotton candy clouds, in pinks ranging from bubblegum to blush. Tokyo is in the middle of a rare multiday storm, with winds so rough I worry they will shake all the petals loose. By the time the sun comes out, I fret, the trees might be naked—I have come all this way, but there will be nothing for me to see, let alone picnic under.
Thwarted by the weather in Tokyo, I take the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka, the third-largest city in Japan. Founded on the alluvial deposits of the Yodo and Yamato Rivers, Osaka is a place shaped by water. Sakura sit perched above hundreds of canals that run through the center of the city. The cherry blossom trees here are in full bloom, known as mankai, and it seems every street corner is punctuated by sakura pink, branches reaching out toward the water.
One afternoon I pay a visit to the Osaka Museum of History. The building overlooks the 1954 excavation site of the former Naniwa Palace, the first full-scale Chinese-style palace built in Japan, in 652 C.E. The building burned in 686; another palace, called the (Latter) Naniwa Palace, was built in the same spot in 744.
It was during this time, the Nara period (710–794 C.E.), that hanami came to be. The tradition started when philosophers began to ponder temporality because of the short blooming season of plum and cherry trees. Emperor Saga is often credited with observing the first official hanami celebration, held beneath the pink-petaled sakura in 812 C.E. “When hanami started, it was a very solemn thing,” says Tomoyo Kamimura, senior director of the Language Center at the New York–based Japan Society, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting understanding between the United States and Japan. “People got together and wrote poems under sakura trees, admiring the beauty of the blossoms and thinking about how the sakura does not last very long. It’s about fleeting beauty.”
The haikus of Bashō, the famous poet of the Edo period (1603–1868 C.E.), illustrate the multiple meanings of the sakura:
The blossoms unfailing
my grief this unopening
pouch of poetry
A spring breeze is blowing
I’m bursting with laughter
—wishing for flowers
Kamimura tells me that modern hanami is a departure from the way it began: Today, celebrations are more about eating traditional foods and attending festivals. Kamimura chooses to participate in “old style” hanami viewings, wandering through parks and contemplating the beauty of the blooms. On this trip I have resolved to try both.
From the history museum’s highest floor, I can see Osaka Castle, one of the country’s most celebrated landmarks, some two miles north. The sakura trees on the perimeter of the complex are a ribbon of pale pink, and I decide to make my way to them. But navigating to the castle is harder than it appears, with several layers of moats, walls, and fortresses. After a mile of walking, my body forces me to stop. I sit on a park bench and watch families on their picnic blankets, flying kites and eating snacks from food stalls. The day is warm and people are using the shade of the trees to keep cool, their bicycles neatly organized in stacks propped against the tree trunks. On a small hill nearby, an older woman and a teen with pigtails play badminton, their teal rackets flashing in the afternoon sun. Children jump up and down the steps of the castle’s main tower while their parents take pictures of the flowers, zooming in on the sakura’s individual petals.
I don’t have time for this, I think as I look around at the bodies in motion, an internal alarm reminding me of my mission. I have somewhere to be. I stand and start walking. But when I reach the innermost tower of the castle, I recognize no one is in as big a rush as I am; it seems that I am the only one feeling this level of urgency. I wonder what would happen if I just slowed down. The castle is open an hour later that day so more people can see the blooms. I pull myself up the staircase railing, eventually reaching the top. The sky is tinged with orange, and I am surrounded by hundreds of sakura trees. I feel relief and thank my body for getting me here, recalling the long path I took to the tower.
After I descend, I take a photo of Osaka Castle set against a backdrop of cherry trees. I have seen hundreds of versions of this scene, the stark white of the building accented by blushing petals. Now, after days of waking up and immediately checking the state of the blossoms, I have finally experienced them. And when the sun starts to set, I realize that this moment will never come again, that these same blooms will not be here, and that even if I return to this very spot, I will be someone else.
Sakura bloom when several weather elements come together. But climate change is altering centuries-long weather trends. Greenhouse gas emissions mean winters are warmer, and the blooms are more unpredictable than ever. In 2021 Kyoto saw sakura peak on March 26, the earliest date in 1,200 years.
Yoichi Mori, a certified arborist in Kasuga, Fukuoka prefecture, has noticed the weather changes. “Global warming is happening here,” he says. “We don’t get snow in areas we should.” Mori works with many plant species but says that cherry blossom trees are special to him. “Many blossoms and flowers inspire me, but none more than the sakura . . . It symbolizes the Japanese spirit.” He marvels at the way the blooms’ opening can make an entire society stop and contemplate. “Everybody is so moved, so touched,” he says.
Early in Japan’s history, the country had three types of sakura. Through experimentation, the number soon grew. “By breeding these kinds of cherry blossoms, we now have up to maybe 800 different kinds of cherry blossoms,” Mori says.
I realize that this moment will never come again, that these same blooms will not be here, and that even if I return to this very spot, I will be someone else.
After four days in Osaka, I take the train to Kyoto. One of my first stops is the Kyoto Botanical Gardens to see some of its estimated 450 specimens of sakura. Founded in 1924, the public botanical garden is the oldest in Japan. As I enter the grounds, I am awed by the diversity in size and color of the cherry blossom trees. The Kanzan variety is large and showy, with hot-pink blooms that look closer to a rose than to its much smaller Yoshino kin. I walk around to view the different species—some are short-trunked, others lithe and long. On the edge of the garden sits a weeping cherry tree, its branches bent downward, sweeping the thick green carpet of grass around its base. I stand quietly under different blossoms, drinking in their smells, which span from slightly nutty and sweet, like amaretto, to a more cloying warm-honey scent. The aroma of spring is encompassing, and I revel in it. I weave my way through the garden, body lighter, curiosity piqued. As I step through the exit gate I consider how each tree blooms in its own time; how lucky I am to be here to see it. I realize I haven’t looked at my watch once.
Later that same day I have a lunch reservation at Itsuki Chaya Arashiyama Honten, a café located on the small island between the two branches of Kyoto’s Katsura River. I walk most of the way to my destination, crossing the Togetsukyo Bridge, which spans the wide, shallow expanse of the water. The riverbank is coated in light pink, a contrast to the chambray-colored sky and the milky clouds above. The water is slate gray, making all the living things sprouting and thriving along its banks seem lush.
As I walk through the Arashiyama district, I notice a series of tents, their tops decorated in primary colors. It seems there is a sakura festival in the park, not found in any of the guidebooks or blogs I scoured ahead of my trip. I decide that after lunch I will abandon my meticulously created to-do list and instead give in to delight.
I could not have planned a better afternoon. I stand in line at one of the stalls in the park and order glossy candied strawberries on a stick, along with a serving of sakura-flavored mochi. I then walk to the river and sit, sharing a bench with another festivalgoer under a thick old tree.
While I enjoy my food, two elementary school–age girls, dressed in yukata (unlined kimonos), make their way to the river’s pebbled edge to play. I am not part of their scene, but I’m not apart from it, either: The energy of the trees, river, and people commemorating spring surrounds me. As the afternoon edges toward evening, I stand and shake the petals from my braids, which I’ve colored pink just for this trip. Sakura season is waning in Kyoto. The petals are falling.
Two days before I’m scheduled to return to the U.S., I take the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo. I sit on the left side of the car, staring out the window to glimpse Mount Fuji. When it arrives in my sight line, the top of the mountain is still white with snow, stark and sharp against a brilliant blue sky.
For a few minutes I have an unobstructed view, a panorama of the volcano and the Japanese countryside in bloom at its foot. I wonder what Mount Fuji thinks of our contemporary predicaments. No matter what we go through, it is there, steadfast, through the turbulence and flux of daily life. In artwork Mount Fuji and sakura are often paired, two defining symbols of Japan’s identity that exist on different ends of the time spectrum: one impermanent, the other forever.
“Oh, you got to see Fuji-san,” Yukari Sakamoto exclaims when I meet her at Tokyo Station. A chef and AFAR contributor who leads market tours in Tokyo, Sakamoto is taking me to visit depachika, the basement food halls of department stores, to see how sakura works its way into the country’s culinary offerings.
At Takashimaya, the department store where Sakamoto once worked as a wine sommelier, items featuring cherry blossoms are identified by pink placards, and they number in the hundreds. Cheesecakes, chocolates, biscuits—all are presented in the same light hue. People around us walk with quiet purpose.
Sakamoto explains how the chemical compound coumarin, found in cherry blossoms and leaves, gives the foliage its scent, at times reminiscent of vanilla. As we move from counter to counter, I sniff, then taste, traditional sakura mochi, sakura-flavored taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes stuffed with sweet red-bean paste), and pink dango, which are rice dumplings on a stick, covered in a salty sweet sauce thickened with red-bean paste. We stop at Minokichi, a kaiseki restaurant with a 300-year history of serving fish. One of its traditional dishes is sakurazushi: sea bream wrapped in rice and draped in a salted cherry blossom leaf. The rice is springy and the fish flakes apart easily. The floral note of the sakura is the last to reach me. I take another, bigger bite, pleased.
That night, my last evening in Japan, I arrive at the canalside section of Tennozu Isle waterfront and descend 50 steps to an open-air catamaran. I take a seat in the center and watch other passengers as they board. A handful of businessmen, decked out in navy suits, pull beers from their bags in preparation for the festivities ahead. We are all here to participate in the evening practice of yozakura, or observing illuminated cherry blossoms.
Once everyone is accounted for, the vessel departs and heads deeper into the heart of Tokyo. Sitting in the boat, looking at the land along the canal, we are witnessing the end of sakura season. The petals are dropping, and they land softly in the water before being pulled away by the current. I watch the blush swirl into the black, and think of how I’ve learned to embrace idleness on this trip, of how I’ve found reward in observation and patience. We glide forward into the night, slowly, taking our time.