Yes, the sakura has for ages been the favorite of our people and the emblem of our character. . . . But, its nativity is not its sole claim to our affection. The refinement and grace of its beauty appeal to our aesthetic sense as no other flower can.

Inazo Nitobe (1862-1933), from "Bushido" (1900)

Spring -- the season of sakura (cherry blossoms) -- is just around the corner, and it won't be long before the entire country is transformed into a fairyland tinted pale pink.

In a heartening season of renewal after winter's chill, a wave of cherry blossoms washes over these islands, usually starting from southern Kyushu in late March before reaching Tokyo in early April and then northern Hokkaido in mid-May -- though this year the blossom is tipped to be earlier than usual.