On a Clear Day You Can See Russia from Japan

© Julie Boyd

The flower unfolded before my eyes like a puppy or a baby uncurling from a deep sleep. It appeared to stretch in the sunlight as it opened, revealing a pink centre and tiny delicate stamens. ‘Georgia O’Keefe would have loved these,’ I thought, but kept that to myself as my companions would not have approved of the inspiration of her paintings.

As the first one opened, it set in train a domino effect for a cluster, a branch, and more, to unfurl their beauty, until the entire tree appeared to be covered in pink and white butterflies.

I looked around. Other trees across the park were also stretching and opening, as if proudly displaying their Sunday best clothes, dressing for a dinner we were all about to share. Young children stopped playing and looked up, following a parent’s pointing finger. An old man stopped riding his bicycle to wonder at the beauty.

Young men appeared from nowhere, racing from tree to tree, pointing, chattering excitedly and spinning, or breaking into impromptu dance moves.

The first Sakura flower is celebrated with as much excitement as the opening of a blockbuster movie. Even the TV news presenters don special Sakura jackets, and the weathermen breathlessly report on the progress of the blossoms across the country.

Spring arrives suddenly in Japan. Just one week ago I’d arrived with some trepidation as I flew across the ugly factory-lined coast of Hokkaido for my first visit, wondering if the whole island was the same. I knew I was in Japan when the stewardess instructed us to ‘ please wear your seatbelt while you are landing the plane.’

I’d been assured there were hidden treasures waiting for me to discover.  Rather than taking the freeway from the airport through the extended city, we drove through the forests surrounding  Lake Toya, a stunningly beautiful National Park known for its flora and fauna. Snow was still metres deep and everything was blanketed in white. A huge, extremely healthy looking fox stood as high as the car bonnet as we approached , and swung its magnificent tail in welcome, staring curiously but unconcerned in its surety that we were the intruders. My Grandmother’s fox fur was a similar texture but not the luscious red of this creature.

A little further on, a chipmunk scampered along before sitting up and chattering. A magnificently- antlered deer wandered across the road and into the forest.

The next day, in Odori Park, a huge, 12 block park in the centre of the city where only weeks earlier an internationally acclaimed festival of ice sculptures attracted thousands of tourists again this year, snow seemed to have vanished overnight. In its place hundreds of technicolour potted flowers miraculously appeared hanging from lamp posts, fences and trellises. At the foot of the giant Sapporo tower, we munched on nutty biscuits, until the cry went up, ‘Sakura’ and everyone rushed to look.

The tidal wave of flowers starts in southern Japan in April. It reaches the island of Hokkaido, home of the Ainu, the fifth human race, in mid-May . It is joined to Russia at its northern end  over Winter. On a clear day you can see Siberia  from the shore. Jeans and leather-clad gangs of teenage boys in hot cars track the Sakura in the same way Western boys follow a prey, prior to a fight. The challenge, to find the first of each species to flower – there are over 100. They surf the tidal wave as far as they can, and everyone has Sakura stories to tell.

As the wave jumps from island to island, the first blossom is the signal for the usually subdued Japanese to free their senses and break out their cherry-blossom parties. Whole businesses close down as everyone repairs to the parks, to drink sake or beer and eat Japanese picnic style. It is a time of great rejoicing.

Driving out of the city towards the famous ski-ing area of Niseko, the excitement of the Sakura chase became infectious. Trees lining the roads unfold to reveal their myriad of colours, from deep pink to creamy white; from tiny blossoms to hibiscus-sized flowers. It felt like being part of a movie, with blossoms appearing to open at the same speed as the car.  All the way to the tops of the mountains, and when, later that evening, we drove back down, it was into a sea of colour.

Three days later the Sakura had gone. The fragile beauties blown from the trees by an unusual wind. Replaced by lilacs which had started to flower, the perfume continued to be overwhelming. The changing of the flower guard occurs almost by order. But the seasons are ‘becoming confused,’ I’m told, and impacting on everything – even the Sakura. People are very worried about the trees.

Japan is a land of contrasts. The diaphanous  creamy pinks of the Sakura against the crimson velvet of whale meat at the market. The loneliness of the solitary cafe diners, and the packed buses visiting spatowns on the weekends. The gentle beauty of kimono-wearing women, and the dark, murderous fantasies of housewives in many Japanese novels. Cities full of high rise ‘mansions’ surrounded by magnificent parks and mountains of which the people are justifiably proud.  Karaoke bars and screeching fun parlours just below ancient temples and shrines where chipmunks play and birds will alight on your hand if you stand still enough.

I knew I was leaving Japan when instead of taking the forest route, we drove along the freeway to the airport past the love hotels, and the 100yen shops, but most memorably past the sign pointing the way to the UFO Park.







Hokkaido is the end of the line. Japan’s ‘Tasmania’, Hokkaido is the home o the 5th Race- the Ainu. The capital, Sapporo is famous for its ice festival, its beer and its aspirational Green City status, and it’s concert hall.


Japanese Philposopher and social activist Tsunesaburo MAkiguchi 187101944 born into extreme poverty in northern Japan. ‘It is essential that formal education, even at a tender age, should never separate the world pof learning from the world at large.

Hostess instruction ‘ please wear your seatbelt while you are landing the plane.’