Just as our own blossoms are fading this year, I’ve received a fragrant gift of Japanese cherry blossoms, preserved in salt, picked from the famous trees of Tokyo. This delightful parcel came from an English friend who has lived in Japan for as long, almost, as I have lived in England. We met while studying the English novel and have shared much hilarity and seriousness since.
Carol tells me that these bright pink preserved blossoms are used to garnish red bean cakes in celebration of Sakura, the Japanese spring, or drunk in the special green tea that she sent me with special tea cups that, when filled, charmingly take on the shape of the blossom itself. Sakura has a central place in Japanese culture, cuisine, and tea ceremony, and there are myriad ways in which it is honoured every year, when one of the world’s largest cities is overwhelmed with blossom of such beauty and generosity that it is transformed; and so, I imagine, are the spirits of its people.
With a sense of reverence, I tried the preserved petals yesterday, a windy day when the tree in our English garden was fast losing its petals to the wind in a blizzard of pink. The delicate green tea to which I added a blossom, rinsed of its salt, tasted fresh and fragrant, complex and surprising. I felt the connection across continents and countries between Carol and me, and between our trees, which have come to symbolise the connections between peoples. How could something of such beauty not have power?
In Washington DC there is a splendid avenue of cherry trees that were given to the city in 1912 by the then-Mayor of Tokyo as a symbol of promise and peace between the two nations. They are the focus of pilgrimage for millions every year who celebrate the capital’s famous Cherry Blossom Festival — its carnival history tinged with the irony of WWII, during which it (and so much else) was suspended. Resurrected in 1947, it resumed its symbolism of renewal and continues to adds beauty to the cityscape and to provide a good reason for civic merriment.
These Washington trees bring to me a memory that comes unbidden as a cry of sadness for all that was lost on April 4th, 1968. I was a child on a trip to DC with my Uncle Joe’s school band, which had travelled from New Jersey to take part in the Festival. We were full of noise and excitement at this great adventure when the school bus in which we were travelling through the city’s streets suddenly and terrifyingly came under attack from stone-throwing rioters. My Aunt Di beckoned all of us bewildered and panicked children to crawl under the seats of the bus as the driver carried on at speed past fires and distant gunshot, back to our hotel, where we heard the terrible news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated that day in Memphis.
I was old enough to understand in my gut this was a tragedy that would change all our lives, and like the assassination of JFK, remember it as a stab into the soul of my native country. What happened later that day has become a consolation of a kind to my Uncle, who was responsible for that bus load of young musicians on that momentous day. When we got back to the hotel, where another school group was also staying, he got together with the leader of that African-American school of young musicians — and we had a concert that evening in the basement – a concert that brought together a devastated, angry, confused group of youngsters who were on the edge themselves of taking their feelings out on each other. Diverting such powerful emotion to music that evening may just have helped to start the long road to healing for those young people, that my poor country is still on to this day.