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Japan is full of delights in cherry blossom season

Few trees can mean as much to an entire civilisation as the sakura means to the Japanese, writes Vir Sanghvi

brunch Updated: Apr 30, 2016 20:40 IST

For the first-time visitor, Japan can be a strange and wondrous place. When I first went, in 2002, I remember being gobsmacked by the country and staring at every street with wide eyed, open-mouthed astonishment.

Tokyo seemed both wonderful and forbidding. Hardly anybody on the streets spoke any English. Most of the signs were in Japanese. Each area seemed entirely different, with a distinct character of its own. Shinjuku, with its bright, vertical neon signs, seemed like something out of Blade Runner. The trendy shops of Harajuku seemed intimidating. Roppongi was hideously expensive. The Ginza neighbourhood seemed like Fifth Avenue crossed with New Bond Street and then transported to another dimension. Kabukicho seemed very odd.

And Akasaka, where my hotel was located, was fun. I would wander through the streets, choose restaurants at random, point to photographs of dishes and eat whatever they served up.

I loved it all. Partly it was that it was so different. And partly it was that the Japanese are the politest, most refined people on Earth, always willing to help even when the language barrier made it nearly impossible. And they are more obsessed with aesthetics than any civilisation I have ever come across.

Shinjuku, with its bright, vertical neon signs, seems like something out of Blade Runner

And so, I schemed and plotted to go back. This wasn’t easy because I had no work in Japan, and Tokyo had struck me as being earth-shatteringly expensive, the sort of city where every secretary and receptionist carried a Louis Vuitton handbag. When the Ajinomoto company invited a delegation of Indian foodies to Japan a few years ago, I eagerly accepted, though, as a rule, I am not very keen on trips where a small group is bussed from one appointment to another according to a mad schedule. But, when it came to Japan, any excuse would do.

And, of course, I was glad I went. My Japanese hosts made their country seem less forbidding and mysterious and, when they weren’t telling us how monosodium glutamate was so wonderful, took us to great destinations and wonderful restaurants.

But at the end of our trip, I noticed a palpable excitement among the Ajinomoto executives.

“Do you think the sakura will bloom?” they asked each other. (Or so our interpreter told us).

And on our last night, when we went for dinner to a famous Tokyo restaurant (“American President come here!”), they forget about the food (and us) and focused on a cherry blossom tree in the compound. “I think it blooming,” the bossman said. “Ah, yes,” the others agreed. (But then, in Japan, they always would, wouldn’t they?)

The next morning, as I took the hilariously named Luxury Airport Limousine (ie a coach) to the ridiculously bad Narita Airport (so bad, it feels like it belongs in another country, not Japan) miles from the city, I noticed that the bossman had been right. The sakura had bloomed. All along the route were cherry blossom trees, ablaze with white sakura flowers.

There’s a philosophical element to the sakura obsession, and the notion of evanescence is integral to Japanese aesthetics (Getty Images)

Few trees can mean as much to an entire civilisation as the sakura means to the Japanese. It is a beautiful tree, all right, but when it blooms (for between ten days to two weeks) each year, Japan goes crazy. Some of it, I imagine, has to do with the beauty of the flowers. But, as is always true with the Japanese, there is a philosophical element to the sakura obsession. There is something very Japanese about waiting the whole year, with quiet and measured patience, for a single fortnight of beauty. And the notion of evanescence – of a great beauty that lasts only for a fleeting period – is also integral to Japanese aesthetics.

And so, once I braved the hell that is Narita and returned to India, I had a new mission. I would go back to Japan to see the sakura in full bloom. Unfortunately for the Japanese – and not so unfortunately for me, I am ashamed to say – their economy never regained its 20th century momentum and by last year, Tokyo was no more expensive than say Singapore, and it was certainly cheaper than Paris.

Read: Even if you don’t want to splash out on super luxury, go to the Maldives

So I planned a trip for last year’s sakura season. No luck. There were just no hotel rooms in Tokyo or Kyoto. They had all been sold out by the summer of the previous year. But I was not ready to give up. What about the following year? I asked. Well yes, rooms were available for 2016, but nobody could guarantee exactly when the sakura would bloom. Sometimes (as in my Ajinomoto year), it blooms early. Sometimes it blooms later.

I’ll take my chances, I said, and booked myself into Tokyo and Kyoto for the beginning of April 2016.

And would you believe it? It worked out perfectly. The first thing they said to me when I checked into the Park Hyatt in Tokyo was “The Sakura bloomed yesterday!” I could have kissed the man who said that! Brilliant!

And so I spent a week in Japan, chasing the sakura. On my first full day in Tokyo, a Sunday, I went to a park in Shinjuku near my hotel to find that I had wandered into a near-religious experience.

Harajuku is a trendy area, and can seven seem intimidating (Shutterstock)

Hundreds of Japanese families (the Park Hyatt had taken care not to send me to a touristy park) gathered around the sakura trees, delighting in the flowers. And what flowers they were! Each tree looked as though beautiful, perfectly formed snowflakes were growing out of its branches. This was a large park, so there were scores of trees, some around a lake, and it was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen.

The Japanese families behaved, well, like the Japanese always do. They took out their selfie sticks. They searched for the most beautiful trees. And they participated in an ancient ritual called hanami, which means flower watching. Many had brought picnics with them. But because they were Japanese, they cleaned up after they’d eaten, folding their mats and throwing away their containers. After each picnic was over, there was no way of telling that a family had ever eaten a meal there. That’s Japan.

And so, I chased the sakura, I went to other parks. I watched the trees by the river. I admired the sakura-lined streets in the busiest parts of Tokyo. Then, I took the super-fast and super-smooth Shinkansen train to Kyoto to look for more sakura.

Contrary to the romantic image the city has, there are parts of Kyoto that are quite grotty and unattractive. But here’s the thing: even in the grotty parts, you find cherry blossom trees where the branches have exploded with sakura flowers. And in the prettier (but admittedly not tourist-free) parts like the Philosopher’s Path that leads to a Zen temple and garden, and in the pedestrian street called Shimbashi, Kyoto can be picture-perfect. There are ponds and streams, giggling newly married couples in traditional dress and of course, the most beautiful sakura you will ever see.

But the point of sakura is that it is ephemeral. When I got back to Tokyo, about a week after the sakura had bloomed, the sunlit, glorious snowflake-like blooms were harder to find. Apparently while I had been to Kyoto, it had rained in Tokyo and powerful gusts of wind had ripped the delicate petals from the flowers.

The sun came out the next day though, and when I went to a new park, not only were many sakura trees still in full bloom but the ones that had been hit by the bad weather were slowly shedding their petals so that it looked as though each tree had its own snowflake parade. Below the trees and on the grass, there was a path of white sakura petals, memories of a season that was now coming to an end.

There’s something ephemeral about the sakura season. Scores of Japanese participate in hanami, an ancient ritual which means ‘flower watching’ (Getty Images)

I’ll go back to Tokyo, of course. There was a lot I did in Tokyo that was not sakura-related. Japan is the most design-conscious country in the world so there are always museums and galleries to visit. Japanese designers merge centuries of tradition with the latest in fashion. An exhibition dedicated to Issey Miyake’s career at The National Art Centre was fascinating because it demonstrated how his grasp of dyeing, fabrics and the use of space had translated into such powerful – and trendsetting – collections.

And then, there were the shops of Harajuku, including one of the most quirkily designed Prada stores in the world and a terrific Yohji Yamamoto shop.

And on the subject of designers, it is hard to go to Tokyo without seeing Paul Smith shops. The great British designer is even bigger in Japan (256 shops!) than he is in his own country. I’ve interviewed him twice before but it still gave me a start to bump into him in the lobby of the Park Hyatt. Our eyes met but I doubt if he had any idea who I was beyond some vague sense of familiarity.

The next evening we were both having dinner at the hotel’s New York Grill so it seemed silly not to say hello. He was gracious enough to pretend he remembered me and we talked about the Issey Miyake exhibition, which he had also just visited.

Just as I had checked out of the Park Hyatt and was waiting for my taxi in the porch, Paul Smith turned up again. He had just checked out too. I asked: “Back to London, then?”

“Oh no,” he said. “Just a day in Hong Kong. And then I’m coming back. I’m always coming back to Tokyo”.

Indeed he is. Lucky man. We should all be so fortunate!

From HT Brunch, May 1, 2016

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