Mazda investigates the phenomenon of cherry blossom season, and the influence it has on Japanese aesthetics
The sky is blue, the air is warm, and it’s snowing in Tokyo. This isn’t the wet and cold variety, though; this magical precipitation is pink, and comes not from the clouds, but the treetops. All around me, thousands of whisper-soft flakes are fluttering down, swirling in the light spring breeze before dusting roads and sidewalks, coats and car roofs, heads and outstretched hands. This is sakura season in Japan: a dream-like few weeks that see the brief but spectacular nationwide flowering of the cherry blossom tree, Prunus serrulata...
For centuries, the Japanese have embraced this iconic natural phenomenon so fervently that their unofficial national flower has come to be as firmly associated in tourists’ minds with this country as kimonos or sushi. But the Japanese love for sakura is not just because it is unabashedly beautiful; it is also deeply symbolic. This marvellous display is hauntingly fleeting (the bloom lasts for a matter of weeks); as such, it mirrors the ephemerality of life, and reminds us of the value of savouring every precious moment before it’s gone.
Sunlight sparkles through the pale pink canopy, reflections shimmering across the CX-5’s taut Soul Red Crystal Metallic body. I’m in the sprawling Japanese capital beginning a journey: not just of the 1,000 kilometres to Mazda’s hometown of Hiroshima, but also to better understand the unique national aesthetic sensibilities that influence the design and creation of Mazda vehicles. Sakura season is a particularly fascinating time to be in Japan because it provides such a contrast to the typical perception of this country as a hypermodern assault on the senses.
The pace of life is delicately calibrated down as the Japanese celebrate the arrival of spring by indulging in hanami—blossom appreciation; literally, “flower viewing.” Parks and tree-lined streets all over the land become a giant open-air art gallery of panoramic pink polyptychs. A stroll through Shibuya’s Yoyogi Park offers a glimpse of modern urban hanami—thousands of young people picnicking on blue tarps under the cotton-candy bloom. Families and tourists, amateur musicians and magicians, and teens in punk or fancy dress are all enjoying the sunshine, washed down with beers and plenty of freshly made street food. It’s like a rock music festival, with a flamboyantly hued (albeit coyly silent) headline act.
“THE VIEW TRULY DOES NOT DISAPPOINT, WITH ROLLING CLUSTERS OF BLOSSOM FILLING THE LENSES, THE SENSES, THE VERY AIR”
Nearby in heaving Harajuku, down the designer-shop-lined Omotesando Avenue, people also indulge in hanami of a different kind. Much like Easter or Christmas in the West, sakura season is tinged with commerce, with everything from branded soft drinks to designer perfumes riding the cherry-blossom bandwagon. And why let sunset rob you of precious hanami time? Night-sakura is an art form by itself, so I join the dense but disciplined crowds flowing down the canalsides and footbridges along the Meguro River in Shinagawa. On both flanks, the blossom is brightly lit up from below, and strung with bold pink lanterns, creating a fresh take on this seemingly inexhaustible colour spectrum. Japan knows how best to smartly frame Mother Nature’s gorgeous watercolours.
Tokyo’s high-rises shrink in my mirrors as I point the CX-5 into the westbound Tomei Expressway. Like most things Japanese, this toll highway is high quality: smooth, well marked, swift and orderly. My appreciation for the CX-5’s niceties—effortless power, spot-on ergonomics, the Active Driving Display’s clear yet subtle guidance—grows rapidly.
From our overnight base in Nara Prefecture, we make a pre-dawn dash for the local prize: Mount Yoshino. This gentle peak in the Kii Mountains is elevated from pleasant to jaw-dropping when its tens of thousands of cherry blossom trees are in bloom. It has been a famous hanami site for centuries, so about half the population of Japan is also here and eager for a gander. Our vista is hard-earned, with a considerable amount of squeezing through Yoshino town’s steep and narrow streets, all the while being overtaken by tour groups of super-fit, Nordic-walking seniors. But the view truly does not disappoint, with rolling clusters of blossom filling the senses, the lenses, the very air.
In this highly urbanized country, it’s not long before the northbound expressway takes us through the tangled Osaka bypass and then into Kyoto. With only 1.5 million people (1/25th that of Greater Tokyo) and mostly low-rise buildings, Kyoto immediately feels cozy.
This historic city was the seat of the Japanese emperor for over a millennium, until 1868. Holidaying regional visitors playfully dress the part with rental kimonos, especially along the sakura-lined promenades of the shallow Kamo River, and in Gion district where traditional wooden buildings house an exuberant mix of geisha restaurants, grill-bars, pachinko parlours and curio shops.
At the edge of the city is a more serene piece of history: the Ryoan-ji Temple, a 568-year-old Zen Buddhist edifice set within lush grounds. Its famous rock garden is one of the aesthetic concepts that the designers of Mazda’s Vision Coupe concept car drew on for inspiration. It’s indeed a masterpiece of minimalist “dry landscaping,” with 15 rocks of different sizes arranged on an even bed of pebbles swept into neat circular patterns.
From any one angle when seated on the veranda, you see no more than 14 of the rocks. If you can tune out the forest of smartphone-holding arms in the foreground, perhaps you might attain the state of enlightenment said to be needed to view the 15th rock.
With the end of sakura season now upon us, it’s an apt time to take the CX-5 back to its birthplace in Hiroshima. Before I can say “coffee break”" the first fat drops of rain splatter the windshield, and the rest of the day passes under roiling grey skies. The CX-5 proves a stable, secure refuge amid the clouds of spray, its array of i-Activsense safety technologies proving their worth more than once.
“THE VEHICLE I'M DRIVING IS NOT JUST A CAR; IT'S THE CULMINATION OF A RICH HISTORY OF NATURE, CULTURE AND CRAFTSMANSHIP BOUND TOGETHER WITH A STEELY THREAD OF RENEWAL”
Despite its charming central district, Hiroshima’s appearance—not unexpectedly, given the tragic events of 1945—is that of a fairly recently built city. While the urban environment is itself testament to the incredible spirit of resilience that was needed to rebuild it into the industrial hub of today, there’s one spot that’s particularly moving.
The Genbaku, or Atomic Bomb Dome, more properly the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, is the eerie remnant of one of the very few buildings that survived the nuclear blast. It puts into stark perspective what it must have taken to restore life and commerce here. I stand in the adjacent garden for a while, oblivious to the rain.
Heading to Mazda’s headquarters just a few kilometres away, I reflect that the vehicle I’m driving is not just a car. It’s the culmination of a rich history; aesthetics derived from a harmonious blend of nature and culture, and noble traditions of craftsmanship, all bound together with the steely thread of renewal. I glance at the last few clumps of cherry blossom left on the branches as they slowly yield to the rain, knowing only that they will come back again, brighter than ever, to the delight of millions.