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

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.

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."

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.

Whenthe 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."

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."

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.

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."

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 theJohn Alexander Project, which supports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world. Follow the fellowship on Instagram (@thejohnaproject) and Twitter (@thejohnaproject).

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