One of the things I love about cherry blossom season is how the beauty of the blossom pervades the entire season. That is to say, from the blossoming of the first flowers to the dropping of the final petals, there is a unique charm that can be enjoyed. In fact, in some ways, I would say it is after the trees have peaked and begin to shed their petals that you will find some the most magical scenes of the season.
Of course, full bloom is a beautiful time if the weather is good. Known as mankai in Japanese, the trees are lush and soft during this period and are beautiful from every angle. This is when people love to go out and enjoy hanami picnics beneath the trees, which adds a unique aspect of the culture to the natural beauty of the blossoms. But once the petals begin to fall, a different kind of scenery appears that is just as enjoyable, if not more so – at least as a photographer.
One of the most beloved parts of cherry blossom season in Japan is what it is known as sakura fubuki, which translates as “cherry blossom blizzard.” If there is a solid breeze among the trees late into the season, petals will fall from the trees in droves, giving the appearance of a snowstorm. This event draws gasps of delight from any crowds present, and will send photographers snapping away in the hopes of capturing a moment of the magic. As one such photographer, capturing this moment well is a challenge. A lot of things have to come together just right, which often involves a lot of waiting around, or sometimes just getting really lucky. But that’s part of the fun of it – the hunt for the kind of image that it is in your mind’s eye.
A personal favorite part of photographing the end of the season is searching for hana-ikada, or fallen petals floating in the water. (Incidentally, I learned that word from a random lady who talked to me while I was taking pictures this year. She also let me hold her dog. Nice!) Much like fall leaves swirl in the water during autumn, cherry blossom petals fallen in a current can create some stunning images. It’s certainly more of the abstract variety, but as a photographer it is very enjoyable to shoot. Since you are photographing something the eye can’t physically see in the same way, you really have to use your imagination as you look around for the right spot to point your camera. It’s also a challenge to make sure your camera settings are just right – too long of an exposure, and the blossoms begin to fade into the current; too short, and the effect is not very pleasant to the eye. There’s a sweet spot depending on the speed of the blossoms, and it takes a bit of skill and a bit of good timing to get the best images.
The only thing that compares to sakura season in Japan is autumn in New England. It’s not just the pretty scenery, but the whole culture and atmosphere that comes with it that makes the season special. The end of the season each year is thus a bittersweet period for me. It’s tough to say goodbye to what is inevitably an all too brief and fleeting experience. If the weather is perfectly ideal, you may be able to enjoy two weeks of appreciable conditions; often it is more like a week to ten days. But even in a very rainy season as it was this year, there’s still plenty of magic to be found. I’m thankful the season provides its own beauty right up until the very end.