Cherry Blossom in Tokyo


Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is a 15-minute walk away from Shinjuku Station, the busiest in the world.  I was staying halfway between the two.  The 144 acre green space belonged to a feudal lord of the Emperor in the Edo period (16th/17th centuries).  In 1879 it was officially named a Botanic Garden, primarily concerned with experiments in fruit, vegetable and orchid cultivation.  Even though it is now used more like a park (opened to the public on 21st May 1949, redeveloped after most of it was destroyed in a World War II air raid), there are still many different varieties of trees (20,000 specimens) and shrubs, a French formal garden and an English landscape garden, a traditional Japanese garden and several tea houses and pavilions, as well as a splendid greenhouse (just finished last year) with some wonderful tropical plants and its own rock-hewn waterfall.  It has been a favourite place for cherry blossom viewing parties (hanami) since 1917.  All these layers played a part in my choosing to make Shinjuku Gyoen my base while I was in Tokyo.


It was my friend Alec Finlay who suggested I make a renga while I was there.  I loosened the form to allow me to write it as more of a journal, a record of my impressions.  The sections (divided by asterisks) represent the passage of the days.  The final part was written more formally at three different locations over the course of my final afternoon.  Fortuitously, the whole thing fell naturally into 108 verses, auspicious in Buddhism – the number of beads on a mala, used to count the reciting of mantras, or prayers.

Sakura is what the Japanese call the cherry blossom and this covers all the varieties, flowering at intervals throughout Spring.  I arrived just past the peak – they opened unusually early this year – but there were still plenty in bloom and people out watching, and picnicking when the weather was fine.  Ordinarily there is much carousing at a hanami party but this being a State garden, bringing in alcohol is forbidden and bags are searched on entering.


Cherry blossom is associated with clouds – a teaching on impermanence.  Watching the petals fall – hanafubuki – is thought to be even more beautiful and special.  If a petal lands on you, it is supposed to bring good luck for the rest of the year.  As far as I could see, it was impossible not to be covered with petals when a breeze blew.

Sakura marks the beginning of Spring and a New Year in Japan: this is the start of the academic and financial years.  The shops are full of diaries that begin in April and there is a wonderful sense of freshness and excitement that winter is finally past.  The whole family goes to see the cherry blossom – walk, eat, drink and take photographs.  To me it seemed like some sort of natural phenomenon and I was very happy to be part of it.


My journey started in January with the Chinese New Year celebrations in Singapore, talk of Spring and images of cherry blossom everywhere.  It seems fitting that it ended in April with my getting to see the Real Thing.


Sakura Renga Journal

From the train
and wild cherry

the sight of a pagoda
announces my arrival

in back gardens
trees pruned

agricultural, rectilinear

already blossom
my heart open

an ‘accident’ creates delays
no mention of suicide

a deep bow
from the buffet guy
at the end of the carriage

spiked trees
pollarded, leafless

woken by rain
my first thought
cherry blossom!

even wet and jetlagged
my meridians lift

the umbrellas
of Tokyo
precision choreography

enormous black crows
raucous against pink

falling rain
makes the garden
more beautiful

lawns, ponds, stones
everything just so

for the first time
I see how dark
the bough is

the downpour easing
only the occasional petal

as many blossoms
as people
on these islands

paths dredged
with sugar pink

three, four or five flowers
on each stem

branches’ entrechats
a dancer’s grace

as soon as you walk in
voices call out
to greet you

the most photographed trees
in the world

in Restaurant Yurinoki
even the cake
is floral

soundtrack of cool jazz
unexpected, perfect

a man smuggles
whisky in
with his bento box

cherry blossom blizzard

because we can’t talk
I offer what I hope
are my best smiles

ancient trees
swaddled and propped

stems are shedding
their petals
I’m not wearing enough clothes

wrapped in plastic
guards patrol the avenues

daffodils dying
a different spring
closer to the bone

no sense of the city
briefly elsewhere

the pergola roof
a bird’s nest
of clipped vines

boulders strewn with petals
spring snow

puddles echo
the outline of the ponds
or vice versa

ginkgo majestic
in its original home

stepping stones
invite you
to approach the water

so much on the ground
still so much on the trees

branches bow low
they so want to touch
us, the earth

reflections in the ripples
pixelated pink and green

crows cawing
the park’s four corners

no fresh clever way
to talk about sakura

a gap in the rain
the space
between two trees

like the traveller
it comes and it goes

a bottle
of hot green tea
soothes my hands

the crackle of my poncho
the keening of sirens

in the minority
western faces
wear their own lostness

always another view
to be discovered

there are the trees
and what the trees
make possible

in the absence of rain
everything changes

a spring
like no season
I’ve ever seen before

speckled membrane
skimming the ground

because it’s new
no one knows
what’s about to begin

the rain stops
the people appear

why’s it easier
to love away
better than home?

below a certain temperature
the mind seizes

if I sat here
long enough
I’d start talking Japanese

wind picks up
blossom lets go

a discipline –
staying faithful
to the cherry blossom

everyone still
watching the storm of petals

what falls
is only what’s necessary
to fall

the luxury
of not belonging

this garden
owned by a government
given to the people

one encounter
one opportunity

bearing the cold
for the pleasure
of warmth later

the colour of trust

hooped railings
alongside the paths
are also clouds

dramatic and subtle

baby soft
just born

all the girls gorgeous
round-cheeked and straight-backed

4pm and a ringing of bells
a woman’s voice
the park is closing

the tannoy’s last tune
Auld Lang Syne!

the return
of the sun
an old friend

the garden alive
with voices, laughter

cherry blossom
in sunlight
universal happiness

the trees’ shadows
still in full bloom

that pink
darker, rosier
from a distance

a million moths
petals flying

and the people
are one society

my pages blessed
with the petals’ luck

stripped sepals
clustered tufts

the smallest children
already enchanted

two ants
among the scatterings

the only response
joy, rapture

turtles bask
on the margins
of stone and water

carved from granite
the sunlit lantern

throats warmed
high-pitched birds chatter
hidden in the maples

billows of box, yew
fringe the pond

paper boats drifting
petals float
under the bridge

a single pine
on the peninsula

the tiniest blue tits
on the tallest branches

grateful for the veil
of latticed shade

east meets west
the poet
is photographed

the pavilion roof
flows down, flicks up

out of nowhere
a white egret
alert, inquisitive

a shoal of fat carp
mouths agape

a pause between
two bridges –
where we live

old ladies painting
in sunhats and pinnies

sprays of yellow
compete with the pink –
pink wins

the heat summons
all of Tokyo’s insects

a fetid smell
the opposite
of sweet

a pale grey caterpillar
dangles from my hair

some trees
kept neat
a cherry hedge

her red kimono
embroidered with blossoms of gold

not a place
to be alone in
asking to be shared

meeting the sakura
a heart’s wedding

the leaves
will come later
irrepressible chlorophyll

clear-eyed this is
what hope looks like.

A 108 verse renga
from Tokyo,
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden,
1 – 4 April 2013.


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3 thoughts on “Cherry Blossom in Tokyo

  1. Kate says:

    Beautiful Linda, thank you xx

  2. Gorgeous renga. I was there for a moment. Thank you

  3. Alison says:


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