This is a guest post by Rose Witmer (text) and Michael Lynch (photos). If you want to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read more here.
The coming of spring heralds the dawn of the Sakura Season, also known as Cherry Blossom Season, in Japan, and tourists come from all corners of the world to view the blooming of the snow-white Cherry Blossom. However, long before the Sakura arrives in the mainland, Okinawans endure the Siberian winds that chill the Cherry Blossom trees in January, coaxing the island’s uniquely deep pink petals forth from the barren branches. Soon, the rough brown is softened by a blush of pink foreshadowing warm spring days.
The Japanese White-Eye, a small green bird with the distinct white ring around its eyes, flits from one blossom to another, using its long, curved beak to sip nectar from the cup of each flower. Sometimes hanging up-side down, sometimes hiding behind pink branches before zipping off to another bloom, these birds have been depicted in many paintings and poems when celebrating the season of the Sakura.
The Sakura serves as more than an alluring display of pink buds. Its brief and beautiful existence is viewed by many as a reflection of life itself and has been an inspiration throughout Japanese history. The proud Samurai found a special connection with the blossoms. These warriors saw the life of the Sakura as one akin to their own, full of divine elegance, but cut down early by sharp winds; their existence both fleeting and radiant. Not only warriors, but also poets, artists, philosophers, kings and peasants all spent what little time they could beneath the Sakura trees watching the snow of petals whirl in the air as the wind ripped them from their branches.
Today, the Sakura continue to inspire, drawing photographers to mountain Cherry Blossoms in hopes of capturing that one perfect moment. The pink petals begin to glow as the sun peaks out from behind a cloud, its rays streaking down in golden shafts of light. A lazy bee, drunk on pollen, drifts over to a flower while the birds flit from branch to branch. Click. An image of beauty made eternal with film.
The Hanami, or flower viewing party, is a long held tradition that is special to the Sakura Season. Families and old friends gather together over blue tarps with neatly packed picnic lunches, or bentos, and plenty of Sake for those old enough to indulge. Wrapped in thick jackets, the cold is barely noticed as the time reminiscing and laughing with friends and loved ones warms the air.
Festivals also add to the excitement of the season. Tents line the streets with paper lanterns illuminating the various festival foods of grilled noodles, meat and octopus. Children run to parents begging for money in hopes of winning a prize from games of balloons and bottles and old men sit along benches enjoying the aura of the season among the lively excitement in the air. Of course, with any Okinawan festival comes the display of traditional dances and the energy of the Eisa, a dance of drums unique to the Ryukyu Islands.
Most Sakura festivals will end with a display of fireworks. However, even when a village finds itself unable to afford expensive pyrotechnics, the Okinawan spirit remains tenaciously undefeated. One year, in place of loud cracks and bright flashes lighting up the night sky, a group of truckers decided to provide their own grand finale to the festival. Loud rumbling drew the curiosity of the village as enormous trucks dressed in strings of Christmas lights and neon florescence made their way down narrow Okinawan roads. It may not have been an impressive display of color and fire, but it added a unique touch of excitement to end the night.
As February passes in Okinawa, the winter breezes tear the last petals from their safe haven and carry them on whirling paths to join the carpet of pink below. The Sakura’s life of climbing into dense jungle mountains, its soft pink petals contrasting with the spreading leaves of the tropical palm trees, is past. The footsteps of pink scattered throughout city parks and lining paths to quiet shrines fade to blend with the lush jade of the coming tropical Spring.
The few remaining petals are replaced by the vibrant Irish green leaves that push through from beneath the flower. Only memories and photographs are proof of the fleeting life of the Cherry Blossoms. The vast contrast of pastel pink to vibrant green is so astounding it leaves one wondering if the Sakura had ever existed. Life continues.
However, the celebrations of the Sakura are only the first of many to come. The Sakura is an unofficial national symbol and a source of pride for the Japanese; Okinawa has the honor of seeing it first. Once the Sakura Season in Okinawa comes to a close, many will flock to travel agents to book flights to Mainland in preparation for their Spring Sakura to bloom in April and May, leaving a trail of snowy white blossoms up the main island of Japan.
Rose Witmer is a young traveler at the beginning of a long journey around the world. She currently lives in Okinawa, Japan, exploring the jungles and mountains when not enjoying the Japanese city life. She loves to write and never leaves home without a camera and a notebook. You can find her on Matador Travel and at her new blog, Samayou Meigui.
Mike Lynch is a photographer in Okinawa, Japan. For more info visit www.mikesryukyugallery.com