"Cherry blossoms, Cherry blossoms!"—this is the most well known, perhaps the most beloved, Japanese folk song (sakura is the Japanese word for cherry blossoms). Cherry blossoms are a symbol of love in Japan, and the Cherry Blossom Festival each year is a time when people step away from their offices and homes to leave behind the day-to-day duties of life and observe, once again, the short-lived blossoms of the cherry tree.
A. E. Houseman's carpe diem poem "Loveliest of Trees" (A Shropshire Lad, 1896) evokes not just the impermanence of things such as cherry blossoms, but of life itself:
Loveliest of Trees
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
—A. E. Houseman
I memorized this poem when I was 19 years old, and I vowed then that in the years of my life I would take time for such things as cherry blossoms. I have tried to keep that vow.
You can find a hundred recordings of "Sakura Sakura"—played on the piano, the classical guitar, ukulele, flute, even marimbas. I think the best place to start with this song is to hear it played on the koto, a Japanese musical instrument with thirteen strings. The koto is played using three finger picks called plectra. This elegant instrument is long and flat; it rests in front of the player, usually on the floor, and the player sits cross-legged before it. The koto is ancient: it was introduced into Japan from China in the seventh century. The melody of "Sakura Sakura" is, as well, ancient.
Here is a link on Amazon.com to koto master Toshiko Yonekawa performing his definitive theme and variations:
And here is a link to photographs of the cherry blossoms of Japan, on the site "Do You Know Japan?":
How Hearing It again Affected Me
It is harder than I expected to re-encounter the music I loved after so long—if the Schumann, and now this piece, are any indication. There is an abiding sadness in "Sakura Sakura," and a sense of mystery and the East. "Sakura Sakura" is, to my mind, one of the great treasures of humanity.
On the list of Japan's gifts to the world, haiku must stand near the top. I have spent the last two years focused, in part, on writing haiku. Here are three examples of my published efforts:
one train south
twelve geese north
—in Mainichi Japan (22 August 2015).
Soft grasses . . .
I start again
on page 1.
—in Modern Haiku, vol.46, no. 3 (Autumn 2015): 10.
Hoot of an owl . . .
—in The Heron's Nest, vol. XVII, no. 4 (December 2015): 10.
The most foolish four months of my life was the semester I spent as a business major. Two things helped me regain my senses and flee the Business Department: the Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball's article "The Gospel Vision of the Arts" (about which more in another post), and my mother's disappointment in my choice of major.
When I was packing to leave home for college, Mother came to my room and sat on my bed. She had my copy of the BYU course catalog. "Have you seen these?" she asked. She opened the catalog to course offerings in archaeology. Mother had wanted to be an archaeologist, and I think she dreamed that not just me but all of her children would go on to have exciting lives doing interesting things. I shared Mother's enthusiasm for archaeology and the history of the deep past, but I had also studied the piano for eleven years and had considered careers in music. Writing was always a given for me—I thought that no matter what I did, I would write at least a book. But I was just home from my mission in Brasil, and I thought it had become my duty to make money and give it to my church. "What about these classes?" Mother asked me. She turned to courses on Shakespeare, Cervantes. "What about these?" she turned to courses on musical composition and piano pedagogy. When I drove away later that day, the look of disappointment on my mother's face haunted me.
She was right about all of it. My heart was not in business. When I called to tell her that I had dropped business for English she could not have been happier.
I took archaeology courses, and paleontology, anthropology, Portuguese, history, music—in addition to all of the literature I studied. When I graduated, I had nearly sixty credits above what was required, simply because I took so many courses outside my major—so many things interested me, and a knowledge of all of them is useful to a writer. Many of these classes changed my life, including one on Asian humanities. I signed up for that course knowing that I would love the poetry, architecture, philosophy, art, and history. What I imagined I would not like was the music, and I could not have been more wrong. Life, for me, has been one experience after another of learning how wrong I was—and of being set free by truth. My encounters with the classical music of India, China, and Japan were some of those experiences. I came to love that music. The trick was understanding it, and my wonderful professor opened that door for me. It was in his class that I first heard "Sakura Sakura."
I photographed "The Time of the Singing of Birds Is Come," the image of cherry blossoms, above, at Temple Square, Salt Lake City (April 2006). The title is from Song of Solomon 2:12 (KJV): "The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come."