Photo Jeffrey Friedl
The cherry blossom season is winding down here in Tokyo. Despite the generally cold and cloudy weather, there were plenty of people out enjoying picnics under the flowers in various states of drunkenness.
And the usual frenzy of cherry-themed everything, including these white-chocolate and cherry-blossom coffee drinks at Starbuck’s.
In the midst of this, I finally heard a convincing explanation as to why the heck Japanese love cherry blossoms so much. It came while I was working on a new episode of Design Talks, a new NHK show I mentioned in an earlier post.
The guest on this episode was the esteemed master gardener Sano Toemon XVI 佐野藤右衛門. He explained that in very olden times, before Japanese began to cultivate cherry trees for viewing pleasure, people watched the wild cherry trees in the mountains so they’d know when to plant their rice. When the cherries began to bloom, he said, it was time to plant the rice seeds in the seed beds. When the blossoms fell and the leaves began to emerge, it was the proper time to transplant the seedlings into the paddies. In short, the cherry blossoms served as an invaluable rice-planting guide.
“You can’t separate rice from cherry blossoms,” Sano asserted. (Actually, that’s my translation, used in the show. What he said in Japanese was 米と桜は切っても切り離せない kome to sakura wa kittemo kirihanasenai.)
Let’s presume that farmers who followed this wisdom got decent harvests and enough food to see them through the winter. And those who didn’t starved and disappeared from the gene pool. Wouldn’t it follow that, over generations and generations, a propensity for cherry-watching would develop in the DNA? And couldn’t that explain the way the whole country gets fixated on cherry blossoms each spring?
But don’t take my word for it; please watch the show. If you live outside of Japan and get NHK World, you can look up the exact broadcast time in your area (it airs several times during the day) on the schedule page. If you live in Japan, you have to watch on your computer through the NHK World website, via streaming in a little box in the top right corner of the screen marked “Now on Air.” The cherry blossom episode of Design Talks streams April 4 at 10:30, 14:30, 18:30 and 22:30.
If you understand Japanese, check out this video in which Sano attests that he’s seen a change in the cherry blossoms due to global warming. He says there are fewer buds on the trees. If you don’t understand Japanese, watch anyway just to see that get-up he’s got on his head.
Many thanks to Jeffrey Friedl for providing the lead photo for this post. Check out his blog for more of his lovely cherry-blossom photos.