They took all the trees, and put ’em in a tree museum,
And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em
Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell
Meandering south, I drifted without design through the town of Miharu and wound up at one of its cherry trees.
Over a millennium old, the Miharu Takizakura (三春滝桜, the waterfall cherry of Miharu) is no shrinking violet, no blushing wallflower among cherries. It has its own website and Wikipage, for starters. Its garlands are exhaustive: it’s one of the five great cherries of Japan (日本五大桜) and one of the three giant cherries of Japan (日本三巨大桜). In 1990, it was chosen as one of the top ten trees from among a list of the 100 great trees in Japan and is routinely chosen by voters in famous cherry spot rankings as the number one tree in all the nation. From 2008 to 2009, its seeds spent eight and a half months in orbit on the International Space Station in an experiment to investigate the effects of weightlessness on their development. It has siblings and progeny across the country and the world, in Taiwan, Australia, Poland, and Hungary. It would, in short, be an alpha male or female among cherries, if cherry trees had conventional sexes, and was not going to let little things like an earthquake (which in Miharu only clocked in at upper five, the fourth highest level on the ten-tier Japanese seismic intensity scale) or radiation (0.40 microsieverts/hour on the day I was there, down from a peak of 2.58 on March 17, the first day it was measured in Miharu) impede its stately voyage down the centuries, ceding only a few twigs to the temblor.
I realized on approach that I’d seen the tree on TV just a few days before, in a cameo news appearance, giving succor to evacuee children, its scarlet pink branches, at the height of their power to seduce, seeming to reach out and embrace the children’s fragile shoulders. The tree is a symbol not just of evanescence, as the common-or-garden cherry is, but, by virtue of its great age, of endurance, too, never more so than now. Railed and chained off from intrusion, it’s far too serious and venerable a tree to permit drunken hanami blossom-viewing revelry within its precincts. The atmosphere is not of the carnival but the cathedral, as the tiny shrine and offertory box atop the stairs attest.
Of almost as great fascination as the tree itself is the reverential hoop-la that attends it: in an ordinary year—which this is not—some 300,000 visitors descend to worship at its boughs, packed into at most three weeks’ worth of obeisance, a time when this A-list celebrity among cherries must be the most photographed tree on earth, much to the jealousy, no doubt, of the lovely but lesser cherry trees surrounding. To corral the ecstatic pilgrims, fields have been paved over with vast parking lots, underpasses dug out, and a swathe of hillside covered with a cobbled approach road. To part the pilgrims from their money, the approach road is lined with wooden and tin shacks hawking pickles, ice cream, and miso. Last year the town rolled the parking charge and the voluntary “cherry cooperation fee”, which many pilgrims were loath to hand over, into one mandatory Y300 ($3.70) payment, coining (I believe) in the process a word new to Japanese—the “cherry tree observation fee” (観桜料), which generated Y69.9mn ($850,000) in revenue, most of which was spent on the orchestration of the blossom-viewing jamboree.
Swamped with evacuees, the town this year forsook the usual nighttime illuminations, free shuttle buses, and portaloos, provided only the bare minimum of parking marshals, and dispensed with the observation fee. Visitor numbers were projected at just a tenth those of a normal year, and with Fukushima Daiichi only 50km to the east, they may never recover their past levels.
None of this matters a whit to the tree, which has only been more than locally famous since Kyoto priest and poet Suetaka Kamo (1754-1841) penned a waka in its honor in 1836:
陸奥に みちたるのみか 四方八方に ひびきわたれる 滝桜かな
The weeping cherry / fills not just Tohoku / but resounds in all directions
Humanity’s tide, which had been rising in the northeast—albeit with stretches of stagnation—since the Stone Age, turned just over a decade ago, and Miharu will lose a quarter of its people in the coming quarter of a century, which is about how long it will take to dismantle Daiichi and—surely—Daini, for whatever the fate of nuclear power elsewhere on the archipelago, fission must be gone for good from Fukushima.
A quarter of a century, though, is nothing to the tree, which has already lived through forty or so of those. It is, after all, a mere stripling when set against the two other giant cherries of Japan, which weigh in at roughly 1,500 years and two millennia old. As long as there are folk around to tend to its now weary limbs—and maybe beyond that—it will endure.