Manila, July 11, 2003 By Manny Baldemor (STAR) Every year, the Japanese plan for Hanami, a religious, traditional event where they go on a picnic and view the flowering of the sakura, the Japanese cherry tree. Iíve always been intrigued by the sakura since a friend gave me sakura seedlings and planted them in my old house in Pasig 16 years ago. Every year, it blooms with unceasing regularity and my neighbors would gape, mesmerized in worshipful awe by the multitude of its flowers. The seedlings supposedly came from Davao, where the Japanese planted many of them during the Occupation.

The other reason for my fascination was a particularly intriguing anecdote Ė perhaps urban legend Ė regarding Albert Einstein and his Japanese gardener. It was said that every year, Einstein would notice his gardener giving particular attention to the scientistís sakura tree in the spring. The gardener always wore a mask on his face and when the sakura started to bloom, he would sit under the branches for hours gazing contemplatively at the falling petals. On the scientistís deathbed, Einsteinís dying request was to see the gardenerís face. What he saw was not the Phantom of the Opera but something close and probably worse Ė the face of a Hiroshima victim from the Atom Bomb that originated from his famous formula E=mc2. My guess was that the death of Albert Einstein came earlier than expected.

The opportunity to fulfill my dream came last February when I received an invitation from the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo inviting me to witness the Cherry Blossoms Ritual Festival, and at the same time, to hold an art exhibit at the embassy. It was an exciting opportunity as Iíve always felt a strong admiration for the arts and crafts and rituals of the Japanese.

The idea came from Kay Siazon, wife of Ambassador to Japan Domingo Siazon Jr. Armed with my usual paints and brushes, I accepted their invitation right away. The Philippine Ambassador and Mrs. Siazon opened their hearts and residence to me. I wanted to start painting right away since I knew there were sakura trees all around their residence. Apparently, in 1956, when President Magsaysay pardoned Japanese prisoners in Muntinlupa, their government gratefully donated sakura trees to the Philippine Embassy, which were planted near the gates of the Ambassadorís residence.

Spring showers were a welcome sight even though I was freezing. The trees were still bare and uninspiring. I made use of my time by learning the anatomy of the tree, filling several canvases with those same black figures clawing towards the sky in seemingly mock defiance of their fate. The trees were high, reaching 30 to 40 feet with a trunk that can go for seven or eight feet in circumference. Were I uninformed, I would not think anything could have grown out of the cold, dead wood. As it is, I finished the landscape and the trees, hoping that when the blooms came, I could just add the flowers.

Then the appointed day came, about two weeks after my arrival. The day before was as cold and lifeless as the day I arrived. Then I heard it (or rather, it was from translators), the Japanese TV news stations started to broadcast the arrival of the sakura. I was surprised since there was no indication, not even the most miniscule bud could be seen on the trees since the late afternoon. I made plans to go out the next day, wondering if I had to request for a long trip to see the flowers.

The next morning, I stepped out of the Ambassadorís residence and happened to glance at the trees...

Incredible, awesome, magnificent, subarashi (wonderful)... these words could hardly describe some of the emotions interspersing through my head as I beheld the blossoms. It took me 10 minutes before I could take pictures, so enraptured was I at the miracle of nature before me. The trees were filled with white flowers and the gigantic black trees looked like it was staggering under a cloud of suspended freshly cooked popcorn. So filled with blossoms were the trees that the branches could hardly be seen. Even then, some of the petals were starting to fall and I remembered some images of old Japanese movies, a girl in a kimono turning ever so slowly while the sakura blossoms fell. Now it was happening to me, the popcorn on the trees, the snow of petals minus the cold. Some fell on the land and looked like used tissue paper. And some fell on the sea resembling bits of delicate macapuno ice cream. A vision of complete serenity and harmony with nature. It was divinely designed.

I trekked to where the people stayed, in the parks where one can have the best view of the blossoms. I wasnít the only one, apparently, it seemed like the whole of the Japanese population were talking, bickering, reserving spots on the grass and near the walkways. I was reminded easily of our own All Saintsí Day celebrations when Filipinos would go to the cemeteries and stay with their departed loved ones. Mostly, food shops were set up on the park lanes with booths for different groups, not just families, officemates, classmates, barkadas Ė all gathered for one reason, to see the blossoms and party away.

There is no doubt that sakura is part of Japanís essence and why her people are so closely bonded with nature. The blooming of the cherry blossoms signifies many things, an end of the old ways and the beginning of the new, the coming of change and the perpetual stillness of Zen thought. It is the time of graduations, the beginning of a new school year, the hiring of new employees and the start of the fiscal year. The sakura symbolizes the renewal of life and its inevitable fragility. It is often compared to the samurai warrior, whose life can be cut down as quickly as the sakura blossom falls, the samurai in service of his master.

I wanted to talk to people and make friends but the language barrier forced me to resort to gestures, which was unfortunate since I was dying to ask a lot of questions. Being hungry, I tried to purchase some festival food. I initially chose a local delicacy that looked like camote but sweeter and very tasty. It was the most expensive camote I have ever eaten in my entire life! One particularly interesting sakura dish was derived from mochi, a kind of rice dough made from diligent pounding with a mortar and pestle. Pink sakura petals are added to produce a pinkish tinge to the dough. The light pink sakura petals come from the shidarezakura tree and the white, more frequent ones are someiyoshino. Both comprise the two most common varieties of sakura although there are about 300 varieties scattered throughout the country. Unlike other cherry trees, the sakuraís fruit is hard and inedible but it is all right since it is considered a noble among its kind, the "Samurai of flowers" and exists to be admired and give happiness to the people of Japan.

They say that another flower, the ginchoge, ushers the coming of the sakura. Unlike the latter, which is practically odorless, the ginchoge smells like our sampaguita and the favorite flower of Dr. Rizal during his stay in Japan. Like the ripening of the rambutan and the inevitable lanzones that follows very shortly after, so too is the ginchoge followed by the sakura.

In a Zen-like manner, people stare up the trees similar to monks in contemplation. Some of them tied pieces of paper on the branches. On it were written their wishes for the coming year and I was reminded of the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem.

I returned to the Ambassadorís residence and added the flowers knowing full well I could never recreate the spiritual awe the blossoms inspire. With the pictures I have created, I felt so honored when on April 8, no less than former President Fidel V. Ramos opened my show at the Philippine Embassy. My special thanks to the DFA Ladies Association who sponsored the show and made possible the attendance of Japanese officials, the Diplomatic Corps, Art Aficionados and, of course, my dearest kababayans. After the show, I visited historical landmarks, museums and interesting Japanese homes designed with Zen principles.

Like Einsteinís Japanese gardener who stared at the slow whispery glide of the petals, I too sensed a feeling of lightening as if some kind of burden was slowly diminishing from my spirit.

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From July 11 to 22, Baldemorís "Ohanami, Magic Moments Under the Cherry Blossoms" will be on view at the Galerie Y, 3rd floor, Glorietta 4ís Art Space, Ayala Center, Makati. His paintings, "Images from the Floating World and My Homeland," will be on view at the Einstein Gallery in Toyonaka City, Osaka Prefecture, Japan, from July 15-18.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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