'A Reminder That Nature Is Strong': In Japan, A 1,000-Year-Old Cherry Tree Blooms

Apr 14, 2020
Originally published on April 14, 2020 8:43 pm

As winter turned to spring in the town of Miharu, Japan, a small group of workers pounded posts into the ground to lay a grand pathway at the base of a giant cherry tree. It was the same path they've laid every year, wide enough to give thousands of tourists a chance to walk up and marvel at the ancient tree, as its cascading branches fill with delicate pink flowers dipping toward the ground.

But with the coronavirus pandemic taking hold, it was starting to feel as if that pathway might be laid for no one.

It wouldn't be the first time the tree, known as the Takizakura or "waterfall cherry tree," bloomed alone. At more than 1,000 years old, the tree has lived through wars and famines, earthquakes and storms.

Old photographs pinned to the home of one of the tree's neighbors show the Takizakura in full bloom in previous years.
Claire Harbage / NPR

One of the worst nuclear disasters in history took place in 2011 near this part of northeastern Japan's Fukushima prefecture, and tourists had only recently started to return. In the last couple of years, they'd been coming to see the Takizakura in the hundreds of thousands. Things were finally getting back to normal.

Then the coronavirus hit, and fears of radiation transformed into fears of crowds.

Sidafumi Hirata, 53, stood near the tree, looking at the dark red buds forming on the branches.

"They're starting," he said. "Just a few more days."

Sidafumi Hirata (left) and his team recently built long wooden posts to help hold up the tree's branches (right).
Claire Harbage / NPR

Hirata grew up here, and he's visited the tree all his life. Now he is in charge of protecting Miharu's cultural heritage — the most important element of which is the Takizakura. He checks on the tree often, making sure it's healthy and strong. He and his team built long wooden posts to help hold up the tree's branches, like scaffolding, after heavy snowfall threatened to snap them a few years ago.

Taking care of the tree is a job the whole community takes part in. Neighbors visit and pull weeds, or help fertilize the ground with leaves — the same way their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. A small shrine at the foot of the tree is filled with offerings from passersby: rice, salt, even a tall bottle of sake. For the spirits of the tree, Hirata explained.

When the most powerful earthquake in Japan's recorded history hit off Japan's coast on March 11, 2011, it triggered a massive tsunami that damaged the Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 30 miles away, causing a meltdown that blanketed towns near Miharu with radiation.

After the earthquake, Hirata rushed to the tree. It was unharmed.

"All day and all night she waited, but few people came." Hirata said. "She missed visitors."

A trickle of tourists visits the Takizakura cherry tree on a sunny afternoon in March, before it bursts into bloom.
Claire Harbage / NPR

But still, the tree bloomed and Hirata kept visiting.

"Whenever I went out, I worried. I had to see if she's OK or not," he said. "But every time I saw that she's still standing, unchanged, it was always a relief. No matter what, the cherry blossoms are still there."

Fusayuki Hashimoto, 72, stood nearby, looking up at the tree. He lives just down the street, and runs a small stall selling souvenirs and sprouts from the tree. This year, he was told not to open his stall. And he's hoping visitors stay away.

"After the earthquake, it was nice when people from Tokyo came here, to show support," he said. "But this is worse, because now I don't want anyone from the cities coming here. I don't want them to bring the virus."

Left: Fusayuki Hashimoto, 72, lives down the street from the Takizakura. Right: The branches of the tree cascade toward the ground, covered with buds on the verge of blossoming.
Claire Harbage / NPR

A minivan pulled up, and a small family hopped out. Two young girls, their faces covered in masks, ran toward the tree, their parents trailing behind.

Their older girl is nine, and they brought her here as a baby, Kazue and Kenjiro Otomo said, right after the nuclear disaster. They were moving to another prefecture and wanted to say goodbye to the tree one last time.

"For me, the tree is a reminder that nature is strong. Nature can get through anything," Kazue Otomo said.

Kazue Otomo (left) and Kenjiro Otomo with their older daughter Ana, 9, visit the tree one last time before they move away from the area.
Claire Harbage / NPR

Hirata doesn't think many others will visit this year. But the Takizakura will get through this too.

"This tree has lived so long, and the longer you live, the more bad events you see. More tragedies," he said. "So she will see more bad things, but she'll also see good — life is layers, layers of bad and good."

The Takizakura blooms in 2010, before fears of radiation from the 2011 nuclear accident, and now the global coronavirus pandemic, slowed the flow of tourism.
yisris / flickr

Last week, Japan declared a state of emergency. The country has more than 7,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with more than 100 deaths.

But also last week, the Takizakura, tucked into a valley between two hills, burst into a cascade of delicate pink flowers, just as it has for more than 1,000 years. And it will bloom again.

Kat Lonsdorf (@lilkat_bigworld) is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship is sponsored by the John Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world. Follow the fellowship on Instagram (@thejohnaproject) and Twitter (@thejohnaproject).

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the small town of Miharu in northern Japan, a giant cherry tree has stood for more than a thousand years. It's bloomed through wars, earthquakes, even a nuclear disaster. And now in the midst of a pandemic that has swept the world, it is blooming yet again. Here's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: The tree is one of those natural wonders that takes your breath away the first time you see it.

There it is. Wow.

It's called the Takizakura, and it's one of the oldest and most impressive cherry trees in Japan, more than 30 feet tall with big weeping branches that bend toward the Earth. Its name literally means waterfall cherry tree. I first saw the Takizakura back in early March before it was blooming with Sidafumi Hirata. He grew up here, has visited the tree all his life, and now he's employed by the town to protect it. The tree usually draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and is cherished by the whole community here.

SIDAFUMI HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Hirata pointed to a small shrine at the base of the tree with offerings people had left...

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: ...Rice, salt, a tall bottle of sake.

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: For the spirits of the tree, he said. The Takizakura has been here for well over a thousand years, a silent observer as the world changed around it. It's been a constant for this rural farming community, especially in times of trouble, like in 2011 when the most powerful earthquake in Japan's recorded history hit off the coast. It triggered a massive tsunami that hit the Daiichi nuclear power plant about 30 miles away, which caused a meltdown blanketing nearby towns with radiation. After the earthquake, Hirata rushed to the tree. It was fine, unharmed, but for years, visitors stayed away worried about radiation.

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Hirata said the tree seemed sad, lonely. But still, it bloomed and Hirata kept watch.

HIRATA: (Through interpreter) Whenever I went out, I worried. But every time I saw that the tree is still standing unchanged, it was always a relief.

LONSDORF: In recent years, visitors started trickling back. Things were finally getting back to normal. And then the coronavirus hit. At the end of March, I went back to the tree with Hirata. Workers were building a path around the base just like they do every year in preparation for the thousands of people who usually come. But Tokyo was heading into lockdown. International tourism had ground to a halt. Hirata acknowledged tough times were probably ahead, but he said the tree has been through those before.

HIRATA: (Through interpreter) This tree has lived so long, and the longer you live, the more bad times you see, the more tragedies. But the tree has also seen good times. Life is layers, layers of good and bad.

LONSDORF: And Hirata said one thing was certain - the tree would still bloom. He pointed to small red buds.

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: They're starting, he said, just a few days away. That was two weeks ago. Since then, Japan has declared a national emergency. Much of the world is at a standstill. It is indeed a tough time. But in the small town of Miharu, Japan, tucked into a valley between two hills, a giant cherry tree is right now bursting into a cascade of delicate pink flowers, just like it has for more than a thousand years, and it will again.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan.

SHAPIRO: Kat is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship supports reporting from undercovered parts of the world. And you can see a photo of the tree in full bloom at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.