Location: Kyushu

Week: 12

Days Travelled: 78

Cherry blossoms, or sakura, are one of the most famous sights in a country spoilt for natural beauty.

Not only is their opening emblematic of the close of winter – which in much of Japan is long, cold affair – but they are also woven through Japanese history and folklore.

Long before Instagram and clever marketing conspired to turn Japan’s springtime into a frenzied photographic furore rivalling summer in the Italian Riviera, the coming and going of these pretty flowers has captured the hearts of everyone from artists to aristocrats; sailors to samurai.

As we drove across the country, there was a brief worry we would miss this yearly spectacle. Due to our route, we seemed to be moving at a rate either just behind or before full bloom; consistently seeing branches turn from dull brown to deep red but not quite ready to blossom, or seeing the fading splendour of flowers already passed their prime, spiralling in the wind as they fled their branches to make way for tiny leaves.

Eventually, however, we arrived in the right place at the right time. Coming out of the Northern Japanese Alps, we finally found the celebrated sight of gentle pinks and vibrant whites alighting the mountains’ winter coat of mahogany-brown and cedar-green.

The longer we drove, the warmer it became and the trees responded with a gentle sigh of beautiful self-expression. Patches of countryside all of a sudden began to fill themselves in with coral and porcelain, like the warming sun was spring’s brush colouring the mountains and river banks with petaled paint.

It was both thrilling and enchanting, not least of all because we were worried we would miss it. And it was in this worry, this fret over a natural cycle I had no control over, that I felt as though I tapped into the subtle lesson of this fleeting flower.

The poet Basho once wrote:

“The blossoms unfailing

my grief this unopening

pouch of poetry.”

There is a metaphoric message in the coming and ending of the sakura; a tinge of sadness just as subtle as the flowers that represent it. Life and beauty don’t last forever, they will fade and dissolve with the inevitable passage of time we so often either ignore or deny.  But that is to be celebrated when it is here, and accepted when it has faded. Our modern lives place so much pressure on staying young and beautiful for as long as possible, to the point we will cosmetically alter ourselves in order to ‘reverse’ an irrepressible fact of life.

We spend so much time worrying about losing a past image of ourselves in some non-existent imagined future that we entirely miss the present.

It is like an excited tourist arrives in Japan at peak blossom season and revels in the beauty of the flowers. As they begin to fade, they refuse to recognise the spectacle is over and spend the rest of their year searching for more blossoms. In doing so, they miss the full verdant vibrancy of summer, the magnificent hues of yellow, orange and red in autumn, the pale, still grace of winter. In the hope of recapturing something that was beautiful because it ends and changes – like youth and ‘special’ moments we remember – we miss life itself.

There is a lesson in this that has perhaps never been more timely or relevant. To me, the secret of the Sakura is this:

Life is bright, beautiful and brief.

We are guaranteed one, one chance to shine across the landscape of existence. Our experience of blossoming from potential to reality is fleeting; our lives are delicate, temporary and to be cherished while they’re here. When the lives of others come to an end of this cycle, we need not mourn but celebrate the fact they bloomed; no matter how long or brief.

Sitting amidst these ancient trees in full bloom I can’t help but feel a deep, almost overwhelming sense of gratitude for being here at all.

With all its challenges and tribulations, life is a gift to be cherished and celebrated before we too drift away on the inevitable breeze of time.

Just like the beautiful sakura.