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Why we love Japan's cherry blossoms.

I lost count how many times I have visited Japan. There were times when I visited this country twice in a year, of course all by invitations of Japanese-owned companies. Needless to say, I've seen lots of places in this beautiful country and never tired of it. I passed up trips to other countries, including the US, but not a Japan trip even it would only meant airport-hotel-coverage-airport. But, I won't mind if my latest trip to Japan could be it, my last to that country.

Together with fellow journalists Jerome Morales and Riza Olchondra, we covered Philippine Airlines inaugural flight to Haneda International Airport last March 30- April 2, 2014. PAL used to fly to Haneda several years ago, but transferred to Narita International Airport. The return to Haneda is PAL's way of making travel to Tokyo easier and more convenient for its passengers. Haneda is closer to the Tokyo metropolis than Narita.

We were just a small "Group of 7" as the tour guide labeled us. The PAL group was headed by Ismael Augusto S. Gozon, PAL senior vice-president for operations. The PAL entourage included Maryjane Llanes, Corporate Communications head of both PAL and San Miguel Corp., Rufino S. Fermin II, PAL marketing head for commercial group, and Pinky Custodio, PAL manager for activations group, marketing department.

From the moment I read the itinerary, the excitement was just building up. Apart from the airport reception and a dinner with the Philippine Ambassador to Japan Manuel Lopez, the itinerary was free and easy with tours to the world-famous Cherry Blossoms of Tokyo. At last, I will have the opportunity to see Cherry Blossoms up close! My previous trips to Japan never coincided with the annual famous Cherry Blossom festival.

The first stop was a visit to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. This extensive Japanese garden, which opened in 1906, was originally intended for the imperial court. It features 1,300 Sakura trees of 65 different varieties lining up the pathways, occasionally sprinkled with other trees such as zelkova, tulip, Yulan magnolia, sycamores, ginkgo, and maple trees.

The park sparkled with light pink blossoms, almost white under the pale sunlight, ushering in the first sign of spring.

Cherry Blossom, which goes by the name Sakura in Japan, symbolizes the uniqueness of Japan. It is connected to Japanese folk religions, a symbol of reproduction and new life.

Cherry blossom is also interpreted in Japan as "transient of life" because it has a short blossoming period and very fragile.

There is an old story attached to Cherry Blossoms that values sacrifice. Legends have it that the Sakura grew on the lands of Samurai for over a hundred years. When the Samurai became old, his beloved tree also began to die. Sad, the brave and honorable man thought of a way to save the tree's life by committing suicide under the tree. This act gave the essence of the Samurai's life to the tree. The tree within one hour of the Samurai's death, on the 16th day of the month, began to blossom flowers and continues to live even today. The Japanese Samurai observed the life cycle of the cherry blossom tree and drew a similitude between the nature of the blossoming tree with human life in general.

Cherry blossoms exemplify the noble character of the "Japanese soul" -- men who do not fear death, of a samurai class rise to political power.

Cherry Blossoms are truly a sight to behold in its full riotous bloom. A Sakura tree with full blooms does not have leaves; it is covered with light pink flowers attached to its twigs making the tree look like dead with no sign of a green leaf. It looks like all twigs with cotton balls sprouting when viewed from afar. There were darker pink blossoms though but they are rare.

Cherry Blossoms have no scent also, but so beautiful in its sheer magnificence, I can almost smell its fragrance.

We roamed around the park and took every photo opportunity we could. With Jerome as our unofficial photographer, Riza and I just frolicked around, running and feeling the moment like small girls throwing caution into the air. The next stop was a visit to Shiba-koen Park/Zojo-ji Temple near the Tokyo Tower and home of the weeping Sakura trees.

The afternoon was spent at the Chidorigafuchi and Kitanomaru-koen parks, one of the most popular spots for Cherry Blossoms viewing. The Chidorigafuchi, a very famous spot features more than 260 Sakura trees. The 700 meter-long promenade sees more than a million visitors each year. It stretches along Chidorigafuchi moat located at the west side of the Imperial Palace. At the Kitanomaru Park, there are about 330 Sakura trees.

From its vantage position, you can look down the river with little boats carrying young couples. The scenery was so romantic giving Jerome an idea where to propose for his future bride.

We could not get enough of Cherry Blossoms that we ate Cherry Blossom-flavored ice cream while we linger at the park. We capped the tour with a boat ride along the embankments to see the lanterns illuminating the Cherry Blossoms at night.

The following day was spent for little shopping in the morning and a courtesy call and dinner with Ambassador Lopez.

Still, the lure for one last walk under the Cherry Blossoms was so tempting that I and Jerome decided to sneak out early morning for Ueno Park, which boasts to be the best place to experience "Hanami" or Cherry Blossom viewing.

Located in central Tokyo, the 133-acre Ueno Park has the largest concentration of Sakura trees lining up the streets making you feel like walking an endless tunnel of Cherry Blossoms. Ueno Park has been attracting an estimated 2 million people each year, some picnicking directly beneath the trees. Some people seemed to have spent the night under the Sakura trees. Plastic blue-colored mats were laid on the ground where some people still lie asleep. It was amazing.

On ordinary times of the year, I could sense that Ueno Park may not be as grand as the first two parks, but the blossoming of the Sakura trees makes it perfect. It was simply beautiful.

Back in Manila, me and Riza shared the same feeling. We cannot help but smile every time the thought of Cherry Blossoms comes to mind.

In fact, Riza talked to them as if they are equals, "It was a different feeling when we see them right Tita Bernie? Until now, I can't help but smile. I feel like becoming a little girl once more."

Yes, the impact was different. It was just pure simple joy that left me under a spell forever, lighthearted but more grounded. It could be because it was nature at its best without the worldly trappings and cynicism in this world of business journalism.

Cherry Blossoms have a deeper connection to the Japanese, whose religion Shintoism respects nature and everything natural. This could perhaps explain the Japanese love for Cherry Blossoms. And just like the Samurai who gave himself for his Sakura, this beautiful tree is giving more.

As for me, the Cherry Blossoms have reinforced what I hold dear that the simple joys in life are basically just within us and within our reach, people we grow up with, grow old with, friends and people we live and care for.

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The author at the Ueno Park, Tokyo.
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Title Annotation:Business News
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Apr 19, 2014
Words:1237
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