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Cherry blossom - a symbol of transience

28th Mar 2022

We are living in difficult times. While we hear the spring choir of birdsong, watch blue skies appear more and more often, and see early blossom emerging, there are awful things happening not too far from our shores and unhappy reminders that life is becoming more and more expensive.

It would be glib to talk of going out and enjoying the cherry blossom that is bursting, or just about to, without acknowledging that it’s a bittersweet spring. Covid restrictions are lifting, yet the focus of the news has now shifted to war.

In 2011, the Japanese festival of Hanami – cherry blossom viewing – was also overcast by sadness and fear following the tsunami that also caused the Fukushima disaster on 3 March that year. There was national restraint on springtime celebrations, the picnicking and parties that usually accompany blossom viewing. Cultural commentators also noted a more profound reflection accompanying the seasonal activities, encapsulated in the concept of Mono no aware.

Mono no aware – literally ‘empathy towards things’ – is a Japanese term that refers to the understanding and acceptance that all things are transient, including all life. It’s similar to the idea Keats was talking about in his ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ – the impermanence of life, art, nature, is part of its beauty and in fact the quality that makes us value them. We all know we shouldn’t take good things for granted and we must enjoy things while we can. This is a sentiment at the heart of appreciating such fleeting spectacles as spring blossom, and core to the notion of mindfulness.

In modern day Japan, it has been noted that hanami has become somewhat of an excuse for a party, perhaps losing its mindful aspect. Maybe the muted celebration was in fact a ‘truer’, more special hanami. To use a Latin phrase, the momento mori presented by the disasters highlighted how important indeed it is to spend time together and keep positive customs alive.

As a custom, hanami is said to have begun amongst the elite in the Nara period (710-794), before being popularised around a millennium later. Gathering near cherry trees in flower, people would feast and drink sake, while reflecting on the ephemeral nature of the blossom. In Japanese poetry, cherry blossom is the ultimate symbol of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ and metaphor for existence, being favoured over plum blossom precisely because the latter lasts too long.

So, while these are not the happiest of times, looking upon these most beautiful of spring flowers as they open up, shine brightly and then scatter themselves, can remind us to be thankful for all the good things and appreciate what matters.

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