Bustling Tokyo catches its breath when the cherry blossom front moves in
Tokyo — The news today was about a patent war between the United States and Japan, and about Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe's efforts to reopen a dialogue with Moscow.
But I'm afraid I played hooky. You see, the cherry blossom front has reached Tokyo, and if you want to catch the flowers at their height you have got to see them today. By tomorrow, it may be too late.
I bowed to my profession with a quick look at the headlines, then took off for the park not 10 minutes from my temporary abode, where the somewhat cloying scent of daphne has just given way to the far more delicate, evanescent fragrance of Japan's national flower.
For all its videos and microchips, this is still the land of the cherry blossom.
Every day, for the past fortnight, the weatherman had been forecasting the steady advance of the blossom front. The flowers open first in Kagoshima, at the southern tip of Kyushu. Then, day by day, the canopy of whitish-pink creeps northward. Tokyo's blossoms, the weatherman confidently predicted, would begin to open last week and would be at their height at the weekend.
For once he was right. As I came upon the park's main avenue running up a gentle slope, I caught my breath, for it was a tunnel of gorgeous pink fading to delicate white, against a background of pure blue sky.
Grandmothers in sober kimonos, moms and dads in blue jeans or jogging suits, and chubby toddlers weaving from curb to curb filled the avenue, which was closed, for this day, to cars.
On some of the side streets, also canopied with blossoms, families were spreading blankets, setting up barbecue grills, preparing to spend the whole day. Some dads were playing catch with their sons.
Others strolled along with their wives, stopping now and then to peer up at the blue sky through a luxuriant screen of blossoms and buds - some petals still tightly furled, others cupped open, exuding the most tantalizing of perfumes.
These are fragile flowers, seldom lasting more than a couple of days. A gust of wind, a heavy shower, an unseasonal snow, and the ground will be white with fallen petals. That is why, in feudal times, they became the symbol of the samurai warrior sallying forth to combat in the flower of his youth.
And in World War II, they were the preferred flower of the kamikaze pilots who hurtled themselves, plane and all, against enemy battleships.
That kamikaze spirit and the militarism that underlay it were thoroughly discredited by Japan's devastating defeat in the war. With backbreaking work, and with generous help from the United States, these islanders turned their country into an economic superpower, peaceful and prosperous beyond their ancestors' wildest dreams.
Pacifism continues to have powerful political support in Japan, and the US has had great difficulty persuading the Japanese to rearm in any significant way , despite Soviet missiles on their northern doorstep and Soviet submarines prowling the seas surrounding them.
For a while in postwar Japan, the kamikaze spirit seemed to survive among Tokyo taxi drivers who made every ride as thrilling as a spin on a roller coaster. Meters, in those days, recorded mileage, not time, and as the streets became more and more jammed, drivers were stretched to perform greater and greater feats of derring-do in order to travel the longest distance in the shortest time.
But the taxi drivers of today are a tame lot. Nowadays it is the passenger, not the driver, that gnashes his teeth in traffic jams as the meter ticks away, turning a $2 ride easily into $5 or $6.
''I do miss the excitement of those days,'' one driver recently confessed. ''Driving today is about as quiet as holding an office job.''
Despite Japan's economic superpower status, many Tokyoites still live in matchbox houses and strap-hang 90 minutes each way to reach their Monday-to-Saturday jobs. (Banks have just started taking one Saturday a month off.) Most Japanese will readily admit that a European who described them as workaholics living in rabbit hutches was not far off the mark.
And yet, in April, cherry blossoms appear. In May, azaleas. In summer, cicadas, and in autumn, maples and the full moon. Japan's calendar moves from season to season in tune with nature's changing garb.
Even if his only garden is a few pots on a windowsill, in his heart a Japanese remains a child of nature, knowing that while cherry blossoms bud and bloom each spring, they never repeat the performance in exactly the same way or at exactly the same time.
So, whatever else may be pressing on the agenda, if this is the day for cherry blossoms, let it be.