LAST SPRING, I went to Japan to see the cherry blossoms. It was the first of April, but I had gambled — with each year, the flowers were opening earlier and earlier, and I was hoping I might see them just as they were beginning to bud. On the streets and in the shops, plastic shoots of sakura branches had already appeared, tied in firecracker explosions to street lamps, arranged in fans over displays of soft drinks at the convenience stores.
I went first to Sendagi, the area immortalized in Hiroshige’s print. It was a damp, woolly day, and the skies, as in the woodblock, were a sullen and indecisive gray — Would it rain? Would it not? — the kind of energy-leaching weather that leaves one lazy and irritable. Today, this neighborhood, along with its two neighbors, Yanaka and Nezu, are popular tourist destinations; Tokyo is largely a new city, rebuilt after the Allied firebombings of World War II, but these three districts were somehow spared destruction, and in them, their low-slung houses, their centuries-old shops selling rice crackers and udon, one can find the echoes of the capital’s early 20th-century life. The Dangozaka hill of Hiroshige’s print was still there, now an anonymous paved road, lined by squat brick apartment buildings, and so, too, was the park, or at least a park, with a red-lacquered bridge arching over a small pond. There were cherry trees here, but they were still bare, their furled leaves green as caterpillars. I sat on a rock and looked instead at the plum blossoms as I ate my rice ball.
It was disappointing not to see the cherry trees in bloom, yet it was a relief as well. Japan is primarily a Buddhist country, but what defines it more than its religion is its rigorous and distinct sense of aesthetics, one that has been founded on a celebration of seasonality. If the life of Christ has inspired some of Western art’s greatest endeavors, then it is the weather — the morning glories in summer, the maple leaves in autumn, the snows of winter and the flowering trees of springtime — that has informed Japan’s, from its paintings to its poetry to its cuisine. To be in Japan, to be Japanese, is to be engaged in a constant, continual recognition of the changing seasons, an acknowledgment that begins at birth. In the West, we may live with the idea of the self; in Japan, one lives with the idea of the elements that surround the self — the sky and the sea and the forest and the earth, their colors and scents and flavors. Climate change, its creeping assault on the seasons’ individuality, the way it has blurred fall into winter and allowed summer to hoggishly extend its stay, like a comedian who won’t leave the stage, is here not merely an environmental threat — it is a threat to 2,000 years of aesthetics. Here, as everywhere, the crisis is existential, because it leads, inevitably, to contemplating the elimination of man; but it is also more immediately terrifying, because it means an erasure of something culturally inimitable.
One year I would arrive on the first of April or even at the end of March, and the skies would already be aflutter with pink. And then what? The cherry blossoms’ appearance, after all, was not only a symptom of spring; it was spring. Without them, would we really know that we had actually moved from one realm — and into another?