Cherry on cake of Japanese modernity

| Cheng Huan 14 May 2018

Japan and many other places in the northern hemisphere have just enjoyed a spectacular season for cherry blossoms.

This year I, who has seen sakura many times in many places, chose Hokkaido in Japan's far north where the spring arrives late and the blossom is at its best.

Cherry trees can flourish in many countries - Europe, northern India, China, Korea and North America - but the Japanese are the masters in sakura presentations.

In fact, they have taken sakura from a simple blossom to an art form, which is understandable as the original species, prunus serrulata, is indigenous to Japan.

The Japanese have enjoyed picnics beneath such trees for well over 1,000 years.

Cherry trees have also been Japan's most successful export of its soft power.

The annual National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC, attracts huge numbers of tourists to the capital.

Just as in Japan, Washington's hotels get booked by sakura watchers.

The event, which lasts four weekends and attracts around two million visitors, commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington.

In the 1920s and 30s, Japan made similar gifts of cherry trees to many cities in Europe and the United States.

A particularly large gift by Kobe and Yokohama to Vancouver makes the British Columbian city a great place to watch the sakura.

Cherry trees seem to love the Vancouver climate, for they have thrived there like nowhere else.

In 1958 the Japanese government donated more trees to Vancouver "as an eternal memory of good friendship between our two nations."

A census in 1990 found that nearly half of the city's publicly-owned trees, some 100,000, are cherry.

That's a lot of sakura to enjoy every spring.

Although their beauty is fleeting, usually lasting less than a month, cherry trees have spread quickly to any country with a suitable climate.

Japanese who emigrated overseas invariably took cherry seedlings as mementoes of their home country, the cherry along with the chrysanthemum being the two national flowers of Japan.

In China cherries are best viewed in Lushun (Liaoning), Wuhan (Hubei), and the Nan'an District of Chongqing.

But beware because sakura-watching is growing in popularity and it's not just the Japanese who arrange their annual holiday to coincide with sakura.

I have met many Hongkongers who do the same and I've met tourists from Europe who travelled to Japan for one reason only - sakura.

You need to book hotel accommodation early, even a year in advance!

For this year's blooms I chose a new destination, Hakodate in southwest Hokkaido.

Perhaps best known for its star-shaped fortress, the Goryokaku, Hakodate is also famous for an American who landed there in the year 1854.

He was Matthew Perry, the captain of an American warship, a metal, steam-driven warship that so impressed the Japanese that they decided to end their 250 years of isolation and embrace industrialization.

Perry's statue still stands in Hakodate, a reminder of a turning point in Japan's and the world's history.

Who knows, for without Perry Japan may have remained isolated, backward, and its cherry trees may not have spread across the continents.

Cheng Huan is a senior counsel and an author who practices in Hong Kong

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