“The Sakura flower is extremely beautiful, but its splendour does not last long. A few days after blossoming, the flower starts to disintegrate, reminding us of the uncertainty of life,” said Nobuko, my Japanese colleague explaining how the Japanese view the cherry blossom season.
The Sakura’s bloom marks the arrival of spring, as the trees bloom only when climatic conditions are right. Missing them in Tokyo, I was lucky to see them in Kumamoto city at the heart of Japan’s southernmost island Kyushu.
Kumamoto is roughly about 40 minutes by domestic flight (six hours from Tokyo by train). Signs of Sakura could be seen as soon as we exited the airport.
Literature says cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Cherry, Prunusserrulata. As my Japanese colleague explained, there are many varieties of Sakura flowers ranging from pink to white. However, white is the most popular Sakura flower among the Japanese. When over 80% of Sakura flowers open up, it is called a ‘Full Bloom’ and the Japanese go out to picnic in parks to enjoy the dawn of spring. The trees in Kumamoto were a few days prior to a full bloom, but were already infested by a swarm of white butterflies. The Sakura trees line the main roads, making it a beautiful sight. Some of the tree branches are bandaged with medicines to prevent them becoming infected with disease – a reminder of how well the Japanese look after these trees.
Kumamoto though offers more than the Sakura. Tasting the cleanest water directly from the source was another experience, the city being famous for its groundwater springs. There are a few hot water springs too in the vicinity and the tour also took us to visit one of the largest active volcanos in the world.
Passing barren mountains that had traces of crystalized lava, we moved toward Mount Aso located about 30 miles away from the city. Disappointing and scary news reached us while on the way that due to high volcanic activity, the public would not be allowed to go to the crater but things had settled by the time we reached there and we were allowed to climb all the way up.
Though having seen many documentaries about volcanoes, I never thought it would be so scary to look at one up close. The volcano was emitting gushing whitish fumes with fury from the heated volcanic lava, the sound captured by the ears more frightening than what has been seen by the eyes. The scent of sulfur was everywhere and announcements were constantly made that asthma sufferers should not go closer.
A tour to Kumamoto is not complete without visiting its most symbolic historic monument; the Kumamoto castle, incidentally the location for the Tom Cruise movie ‘The Last Samurai’. The movie is based on the historic events of the Satsuma Rebellion that took place in 1877 and the final battle between Samurai warriors and the empire’s troops that took place in Kumamoto. Dating back to the 1600s, the Kumamoto Castle is considered a most impregnable fortress with singular features such as its curved stone walls called mushagaeshi and its wooden overhangs, originally designed as protection against the ninja, together with its black and white main towers according to the guides.
Today, Kumamoto Castle also houses a museum which contains palanquins, samurai armour, Japanese swords and other artefacts from the Kato and Hosokawa clans, as well as detailed information on the castle’s remarkable history. It is also an excellent site for cherry blossom viewing,
The friendly people are the most valuable asset of Kumamoto. If you are lost, most would not hesitate to come along to show you the way. I even found a Sri Lankan restaurant in Kumamoto!
Published on SundayTimes http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140406/plus/off-to-kumamoto-to-see-japans-famed-cherry-blossoms-91446.html Photo credit for Cherry Blossoms in ‘Full Bloom’ Chunli Yang.