When Japan underwent the great transformation from the samurai-dominated feudalism of the Edo Period (1603-1868) to the rapid modernization that characterized the subsequent Meiji Era, the castles that had for so long symbolized power and authority suddenly lost their significance. But the historical value of their sturdy stone ramparts and towering wooden keeps won renewed appreciation in the second half of the Meiji Era. Efforts were made to restore the castles, accompanied by extensive tree planting.
Once the first few buds of a cherry have opened on its otherwise bare branches, the entire tree is quickly covered in blossoms. The flowers are so profuse that they may block out the sky. But the glorious display of color is only a small part of the sakura’s appeal. To many Japanese, the moment that resonates deepest in their hearts as they linger beneath a flowering cherry is when the frail petals begin to fall. As soon as the first petal lets go, gracefully giving up the struggle for life and floating slowly to the ground, another is quick to follow, and soon a multitude of pink flakes are fluttering down like snow. That exquisite instant when the life of a cherry blossom comes to an end reminds us of the transience of our world, and the impermanence of human existence. That awareness was an integral part of the samurai spirit.
Both the cherry blossoms and the old castles speak to us of the endless cycle of death and rebirth. A little over a century has passed since the planting of sakura trees around the abandoned castles commenced. In the intervening years, their annual display has come to mean much more than a few days of pretty spring scenery: It has entrenched itself in the national psyche as an expression of sublime beauty. People from all walks of life are entranced by the brief burst of delicate blossoms, and often come together to drink and picnic under the floral canopy. We are inspired to contemplate our own mortality. And each time we pause beneath a flowering sakura, we are also anticipating the pleasure of repeating the experience in a year’s time.