Were it not for sakura
in this world,
our hearts and minds
would not be so serene
-Ariwara no Narihira (825-880 A.D.)
It’s the most wonderful time of the year in Tokyo right now. That fleeting moment that comes each spring when the cherry trees do their best cotton candy impersonation and the entire city comes out to party. Sakura. More than just a flower, it’s a state of mind.
When the sakura bloom, Tokyo–already one of the most beguiling cities in the world–is positively radiant. Not only are the views spectacular, but everyone’s spirits seem to sparkle as well. Along the pathways of Ueno Park, revelers stretch out tarps and gorge themselves in elaborate picnic feasts (hanami). It’s kind of like the Hollywood Bowl on steroids. (For a complete sensory experience, you can taste sakura too, in everything from condiments to fine dining to sakura-matcha Kit-Kat candy bars.) The lack of open container laws for alcoholic beverages make for a sake-fueled orgy of increasing boisterousness as the nights wear on.
And why not enjoy it to the fullest? Sakura is the very definition of ephemeral. After the opening of the first blossoms (kaika), full bloom (mankai) is usually reached within about one week. Another week later, the blooming peak is over and the blossoms fall from the trees. Everything is accelerated if there’s even a moderate amount of wind and rain during this time. Think about it this way: what if we only had sand at our Southern California beaches for one week out of the year?
Monday and Tuesday were the peak of sakura season this year in Tokyo. Lucky for the LA Phil and those of us traveling with the orchestra. Most of us headed out into the city to take in this very special event. We all took lots of photos. None of them do sakura justice.
Sakura is like a great musical performance. If you’re like me, you’ve got a running list of your Top 5 (or so) concerts that you’ve attended. Mine include a Guarneri String Quartet performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet…the first time I heard John Adams’ Harmonielehre (Atlanta Symphony/Robert Spano)…the Tallis Scholars singing Tallis in the lobby of the Bradbury Building…Esa-Pekka Salonen’s interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. I added one to my list recently: Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil in Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.
These performances are moments that will stick with us for the rest of our lives. Moments that occupy the tiniest sliver of a percentage of our existence on this planet. Their ephemeral nature enhances their impact. The idea that we, alongside a select group of people, experienced this amazing thing that was so powerful and revelatory and poignant and eloquent–and we’ll never experience in exactly the same way again–it’s our musical sakura.
It’s special because it’s not permanent. Oh sure, we can try to document the experience. We can take photos under the trees and make live concert recordings, but the recreation of the thing pales in comparison to the actual thing itself.
This is where we can find ourselves in a bit of trouble. It’s 2015, and we live in a social media-obsessed world. I don’t have a problem with that. Social media is an effective communication tool for me, personally and professionally. Plus, I actually rather enjoy using social media to share my experiences and to discover what others are up to. But we also would do well to put the phone down every so often and just experience life, rather than documenting it for future mass consumption. It is possible to completely miss the impact of a moment while trying to capture it.
The moments that are most memorable in our lives are the ones we have been fully present for. The press of the Ueno Park crowds euphorically shuffling along bumping into one another all while engulfed in an archway of cherry blossoms. The spine-tingling, heart-stopping, earth-shattering final chord of Mahler 6 as it blows you back in your seat. It’s more than a flower…more than a collection of notes. It’s sakura. And when the moment is passed? As Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”