When five shell-pink buds open together on a particular tree in the precincts of Yasukuni Shrine in central Tokyo, the city explodes with the joy of spring. The cherry-blossom season has officially begun!

But the crowded picnics beneath the graceful Somei-Yoshino trees are only part of the story. If you walk among the hills of Yoshino itself, a small town in the hills some 30 km north of Nara, you will discover something older, and deeper.

There, as in many other mountainous areas, cherry blossoms are in their natural habitat, blurring with the soft greens of spring. If the morning mist is rising, and a bush warbler is singing, so much the better. Now you understand: This is where Japan's long love affair with cherry blossoms began.