My life changed the first time I laid eyes upon a sakura tree.
It was April 2, 2014, the first full day of my first trip to Japan. I had just walk westward through the skyscrapers of Tokyo‘s Marunouchi district toward the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace when I saw the specimen, at perfect full bloom in the perfect light of a perfect spring morning.
The flowers and the trees they hung on were perfect, but the way I captured them needed some work. As a result, I’ve returned to Japan during almost every sakura season since then: 2017, 2018, 2019 and, now, in 2021.
Living in Japan, as has been the case for me since last December, afforded me the rare opportunity to follow the “cherry blossom” front along its entire progression through Japan.
I began this year’s trip on March 22 in Kumamoto, the first major city to experience mankai (full bloom). I felt thrilled (but shocked) as I walked the grounds of Kumamoto Castle, still largely destroyed after a devastating 2016 earthquake. Many of the trees were actually past peak; during my 2017 trip, which saw me pass through the city on April 1 of that year, most blossoms had only just opened.
In retrospect, experts have concluded that 2021’s cherry blossom season was the earliest in more than a millennium, and maybe ever. I knew this as it was transpiring: By April 1, I’d not only photographed and enjoyed hanami scenes in earlier-blooming cities such as Fukuoka, Hiroshima and my home base of Kyoto, but had already completed swings through Kanazawa and even atop Mt. Yoshino, whose peak usually comes closer to the middle of the month.
On April 5, when I looked down onto Churei-to pagoda with Mt. Fuji looming behind it, I was nearly too late: At least a third of the petals had fallen, and were beneath my scurrying feet instead of within my camera’s viewfinder.
I concluded my most comprehensive (and, looking back, my most fulfilling) sakura sojourn so far in a self-contained swing through Tohoku and Hokkaido almost two weeks later, ticking Akita’s Kakunodate, Aomori’s Hirosaki Castle and Hakodate’s Goryokaku Fort off my bucket list in one fell swoop, and with a confident satisfaction: At long last, I’ve done Japan’s cherry blossoms justice.
Or at least I think I have: You’ll ultimately be the judge of that—and not just with the (hopefully) nice comments you leave below.
More than anything, I hope these pictures inspire you to go and see the sakura for yourself, whether in 2022 to celebrate the end of the pandemic, or in the more distant future.
As I know very well after seven years taking part in it, this age-old tradition certainly isn’t going anywhere.