“A perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your entire life looking for one and it would not be a wasted life.” – Lord Katsumoto in the film, “The Last Samurai”
The juxtaposed beauty and fragility of cherry blossoms have captivated the Japanese people for centuries. With their short but breathtaking and peaceful bloom season, the flowers become a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life.
Capturing the sakura has been a goal of mine for as long as I can remember. So I set off to Japan this spring and was able to witness what was called one of the best blossom seasons in years.
My story begins with Osaka Castle.
Osaka: Death And Rebirth
One afternoon, I sat nearby Osaka Castle – a lavish structure built by a warlord to surpass every other castle in the country – and reread my favorite novel of all time, “Shogun.” I was just enjoying a cool spring afternoon. Having already shot multiple images of the Castle, I was waiting patiently for the cherry blossoms in the nearby garden to hit peak bloom a few days later. In the meantime, I just enjoyed being around such magnificent history and architecture.
However, I reached a part in the book where the English character sees the Castle for the first time and is blown away by its sheer size and splendor. The way it just seems to impose its will over the surrounding landscape. Succumbing to how “meta” the situation felt – I was reading about Osaka Castle in a 50-year-old book while sitting outside Osaka Castle itself 14 time zones away from my home state of Florida – I looked up and realized just how imposing and regal the castle looked from my seat.
And rays of golden light were hitting the side of the castle facing the sun. Instantly the book was in my bag and my camera was out. I quickly set up my composition and began shooting. Everything came together:
The still-dead trees on the left contrasted with the blooming cherry blossom tree on the right, creating the perfect dualistic story. The elements symbolically told a greater tale of Osaka Castle – a structure destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the last four centuries. Conversely, Osaka Castle’s history of death and rebirth is the same as the annual narrative of the sakura. The blossoms die, but return again the following year, often just as regal as ever.
A few days later, the blossoms in the garden reached peak bloom on an overcast, stormy day – allowing for an image where the castle seems to ominously float on a sea of sakura.
Nara: The Difference a Week Makes
I spent a couple weeks in Osaka waiting for the bloom to begin, but during that time, I made a couple day-trip detours to Nara. Now one of my favorite cities in the country, Nara lacked the chaotic busyness I’d soon find in Tokyo or the dense skyscrapers of Osaka – a plus for a probable claustrophobic like me. Instead, deer roamed freely and ancient temples dotted the area as part of a group called the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.”
One of those temples, Todai-ji, was the largest wooden structure in the world up until this past decade. I wanted to capture its size so I headed to the complex early on a Saturday morning. I didn’t even know there was a cherry blossom tree outside, but when I arrived, the tree was in a dramatic half-bloom state.
Look closely and you can see tourists below the structure, providing a sense of scale for its grandeur.
I took some photos then toured the building in awe. I left later that day excited that places like this exist on our planet, but also a bit dismayed that the cherry blossom tree was only in half-bloom. Funny, considering I didn’t even know it existed before that day. I was determined to capture the tree in full bloom, so exactly one week later, I returned.
A perfectly blooming cherry tree, but an overcast day. You can’t win ‘em all! A week after this new photo was taken, I returned yet again to show the complex to a friend, and the blossoms were gone. What a difference a week makes.
Tokyo: Serenity Within Chaos
“The overriding sense of Tokyo is that it is a city devoted to the new, sped up in a subtle but profound way: a postmodern science-fiction story set ten minutes into the future.” – David Rakoff
With upwards of 38 million people and 51 of the global Fortune 500 companies, Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world and home to some of the busiest places you’ll ever see.
So how do you seek some quiet time in this chaotic, science-fiction atmosphere? I made it my goal to find out, using the sakura as my guide.
I first visited Chidorigafuchi, part of the moat of the old Edo Castle grounds, and ended up elbow-to-elbow with hundreds of tourists and residents. The picture looks tranquil, though!
I then visited Meguro River, another famous sakura spot, and it was also packed. Not to be deterred, I spent the evening walking along the river. The canopy of cherry blossoms created a mystical forest-like setting deep within Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis. Lanterns lined the path and when night fell, the lights came on, the colors clashed, and the crowds thinned out just enough to forget the chaos around me and instead focus on the beauty in front of me. I concentrated on the wonder of the bloom and, for a moment, nothing else mattered.
Tokyo is busy, bustling and chaotic. It is one of the closest things to a science-fiction megatropolis on this earth. But while the city feels like it’s been sped up, like the fast-forward button is perpetually pushed down, moments of solitude are possible. You can find serenity within the chaos if you look hard enough. I did.
Matsumoto: Of Samurai and Sakura
During my travels to Japan, I made it a priority to photograph some of its iconic castles. As a history buff and lover of fantasy and ancient architecture, I enjoy taking pictures of structures like these. As I had done with Osaka Castle the week prior, my goal was to make the castles seem imposing, dominant and iconic – an ode to the warriors who once lived there.
“From the moment they awake, the samurai devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue,” Nathan Algren said in “The Last Samurai.” And their main pursuit was war. There is possibly no other warrior in history that invokes as much graceful power as the Samurai. I wanted to capture this power in my photos of Japan’s castles.
One of the fortresses on my itinerary was Matsumoto Castle, the oldest keep remaining in the country. As it was now the heart of sakura season, I hoped the trees around the castle would add to its mystique. I’d noticed that despite being peaceful, these blossoms were so visually striking that they themselves exuded graceful power.
And so I left Tokyo: its chaos – while momentarily relieved by the magic of sakura – can drain on a travel-weary wanderer. I escaped north, into the Japanese Alps and on to Matsumoto.
As I arrived in the city, the quiet, peaceful nature of the region gave me a sense of calm that had been missing at my previous stop. I wondered, in such a serene environment, how could Matsumoto Castle be powerful and dominant? The castle rested on a flat surface – no hills or mountains protected it. I went to sleep that night not knowing what to do.
Before dawn the next morning, I made my way to the castle grounds in complete darkness. I had no idea what to expect. I found the donjon and set up at what I thought would best convey a sense of that dominance I hoped for – a 90 degree angle from the castle. I could barely make out its shape, but I knew there was a moat and I hoped to get a reflection shot. Then I waited for sunrise…
And, wow. Just, wow. The colors of sunrise lasted under a minute, but their profound effect created something I couldn’t have ever envisioned. Matsumoto Castle was once nicknamed “the Crow Castle” for its black exterior and the way it appears to look like a crow taking flight. The sunrise I got that morning added real wings to the fortress. The donjon – framed by peak-bloom sakura – actually seemed to take off, to lurch out of its peaceful surroundings and take flight right at me. It’s like the castle was angry. Angry that I had doubted its power. And it had every right to be angry.
Its dominance was unmatched by anything I had ever seen.
Yoshino: The Season Comes to and End
After Matsumoto, I headed to the sakura-viewing location considered to be the best by the Japanese – Mount Yoshino. Yoshino has thousands of sakura trees. According to various accounts, the trees were planted in four groves at different altitudes, partly so they’d bloom at different times of the spring. Travelers could then climb to the top of the mountain, enjoying the lower 1,000 cherry trees at the base, the middle 1,000 on the way, and the upper 1,000 at the top.
I reached Yoshino just in the nick of time – the trees in the lower 1,000 were already losing leaves. I hoped for a shot from the top of the peak, looking out at the blossoms below, but a cloudy, rainy, gray day crushed that goal. However, I managed to find another spot I liked.
And just like that, sakura season came to an end. Just few days from my first photo of Osaka Castle to my last photo of Mount Yoshino.
I witnessed a scene unfold that contrasted Osaka Castle’s death and rebirth with that of the sakura. In Nara, I saw the difference just one week can make on the state of the blossom season. I found serenity within the chaos of Tokyo by focusing on the beauty of the bloom. I channeled my inner nerd in Matsumoto, using the castle and surrounding cherry trees to fuel a vision of samurai and sakura and all their graceful power. In Yoshino, bad weather ruined my one opportunity for a panoramic vista shot, and I saw the end of the bloom. These instances all helped paint a picture of the beauty and fragility of cherry blossoms.
While I was lucky to witness an amazing Sakura season on my first try, there is still so much more to capture. That’s the allure – these trees bloom for a week a year, and all it takes is some bad weather to destroy it all. In my ideal future, I’m back in Japan almost every spring trying to capture the perfect Sakura season. I’d like to believe that would not be a wasted life.