After a lapse of so many years, I finally managed to return to my “home” before the month of March ended in the fourth year, for the long-missed “hanami” season of Japan.
Right at this moment, central and southern parts of Japan are teeming with flowers and chirping birds ushering in the glorious springtime.
Although it has been said that this year will see intensifying global warming and the cherry trees blossom four days earlier than anticipated, visitors from across the world are still flocking to the Land of Rising Sun with a grateful heart and much appreciation, all prepared to shuttle among the excited Japanese folks along the creeks and lakes in parks across the country to enjoy the marvel of blossoming sakura, and to lie cozily on the cherry-carpeted floor!
My Okayama friend, 22-year-old Haruko-san, texted me: I’m now riding a modified motorbike galloping on the highway leading south to Kyushu to chase the sakura!
Indeed, chasing the sakura is one of the items on many Japanese people’s lifetime wishlist.
She said seriously: This time, I will first go round all major hanami sites in the seven prefectures of Kyushu, and see what rare cherry species I’ll be able to catch. After that, I’ll ride across the Kanmon Straits back to Honshu and onward to the four prefectures of Shikoku, before crossing the Seto Bridge into Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara in Honshu, and then head to Mie, Shizuoka, Yokohama and end the trip in Tokyo!
In short, Haruko will need a total of 14 days to complete this year’s “sakura-chasing” epic. Prior to this, she has extended an invitation to me: Lee San, you might want to get a motorbike so we can meet up under the cherry trees beside the Maizuru Gate and start our sakura-chasing adventure together!
How I wish to join you, Haruko-san, so that we can count each blossom together, and see how many species of sakura we manage to get. I would also love the sight of cherry blossoms carpeting the entire ground, much more to savor the sakura bento with you under the cherry trees!
We all know that cherry blossoms only have a very short lifespan of seven days after the full bloom. Swept by the wind and rain, the flowers fall onto the floor like snow flakes, presenting a breathtakingly beautiful yet poignant image.
As such, people will treasure the short moments that the cherry blossoms explode into colors, enjoying and appreciating every bit of it. This is when all our earthly worries and sadness will momentarily vanish.
As as matter of fact, human life is full of twists and bends and instead of worrying about it, why not take it in stride and believe that everything will get better tomorrow?
A sakura fanatic like me has been making a date with cherry blossoms year after year over the past three decades. And luckily, we have never absented ourselves all these years, with the only exception of those few pandemic years.
I have many times traveled to Kyushu in March, Honshu in early April, Aomori in late April and Hokkaido in May for the local Sakura Matsuri festivals, tracking the blossoms all the way from south to north, while savoring the mouth-watering local delicacies all across Japan: sipping the umeshu and soaking up in onsen. What else can we ask for in life!
We have all gone through endless torments and hardships during the pandemic, being separated from our loved ones for years and even life!
Now that the ordeal is finally behind us, we can once again look at life with renewed optimism. Right now everything in front of us is like a blessed gift from the Almighty! This makes the 2023 hanami season all the more precious and significant. The full bloom and the subsequent withering will instill in us a deeper apprehension of the meaning of life this time!
It is not an overstatement to claim that what stays inside my mind most often during these past three years of pandemic is the sakura!
As such, chasing the sakura is not just a non-essential luxury, but a valued rendezvous where the heart and spirit meets. Because of that, it is not difficult to understand why the Japanese people, including Haruko-san, have religiously devoted their lives to the cherry blossoms.
For centuries, cherry blossoms have always occupied a prominent place in the heart of every Japanese people who is enthralled by her aloof poignant beauty!
I should reply to Haruko’s message: Sorry, dear! I don’t think I can meet you this time because I’m already here in Kyushu with 32 Malaysian travel buddies, and our sakura-chasing route totals 2,000 km! Why not let me be your precursor bringing you the latest updates along our route in Kyushu?
Although we are not able to travel together, we have both chosen Fukuoka as our starting point. As a matter of fact, the Ohori and Maizuru Parks in Fukuoka serve as the hanami benchmarks for Kyushu. This is where all sakura chasers must come!
About 80% of the cherry trees in Japan belong to the Somei Yoshino species, but in Fukuoka, they have also planted tens of thousands of colorful tulips to adorn this magnificent city of four million inhabitants. What an elegant combo!
Spring comes early in Kyushu. Right at this moment, Sakura Matsuri is all over in Fukuoka, Beppu, Yufuin, Kirishima and Kumamoto.
Hey, Haruko, watch out for the rain over the next few days! Right now we are going to proceed to Hiroshima and see you at the Rock in Osaka Castle (the secret signal between me and Haruko-san)!
P/S: Before the end of March, at the invitation of Kumamoto Mayor Mr Kazufumi Onishi, our group of 32 sakura-chasers was joined by the city’s mascot Kumamon and three other “bafuku samurais” outside Kuamamoto city. Our hearts were elated and blossoming, just like the warm Kyushu sun and the city-wide Sakura Matsuri!
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)