What do they do with all those photos?

The Japanese appreciate splendour on a small scale, such as in the gentle perfection of a cherry blossom.
The Japanese appreciate splendour on a small scale, such as in the gentle perfection of a cherry blossom. Photo: Getty Images

You could swear you were missing out on something. Surely. What's with the cameras? What are they taking photos of?

It's as if some vital piece of information that would make the whole situation make sense is being withheld. On purpose.

Mind you, that's a familiar feeling for a first-time visitor. Unless you can speak the language and read the words in Japan you're never sure that you're really getting everything. You spend your whole time wandering around not entirely convinced that you're in the right place and doing the right thing.

Do you eat this with that? Do you put that in there? Can you walk that way with this? And what's that beeping noise?

Everything's so foreign and unexplainable. It's fantastic.

Even for Japan, however, the cameras with their huge telephoto lenses are weird. They're perched on equally bulky tripods, crowded around the trees in large groups like hungry giraffes trying to feed, staring at their food with Cyclops eyes.

Madonna would be quite proud of a paparazzi following like that. Is there something behind the tree? Or is it something in the tree? What's the attraction?

Each camera has its own person attached to the back of it, who's no doubt clicking away at whatever it is they've found that's so worthy of clicking.

The same is happening at every tree in the park - there's a huge herd of cameras, although sometimes with a human subject, such as a girl in a kimono smiling and doing the "peace" sign in front of the foliage. Still, you get the feeling they're getting in the way of the real deal.

Finally, the penny drops. They're not taking photos of the trees. They're not taking photos of anything behind the trees, or even above them. They're taking photos of the flowers.

It's cherry blossom season in Osaka and the locals are going mad for it. Some just stroll through the parks and enjoy this annual event, one that lasts but a few weeks in April before the flowers disappear once again. Others - those more determined to preserve the moment - set their big, expensive cameras up on big, expensive tripods and snap like National Geographic professionals on safari.

Right. So they're flowers. Nice flowers, granted, but still just flowers. What's the big attraction? Why all the fuss? You don't see Australians crowding around wattles or waratahs, regardless of how beautiful they might be.

But this, you later find out, is a Japanese tradition as ancient as it is quaint - to simply sit and admire the simple beauty of a cherry blossom. It's a custom of royalty passed on to the people.

Sit. Relax. Appreciate.

For the confused foreigner, however, it's still a rather strange sight. Why are they so obsessed with a little flower? And what's with the cameras?

The obsession is an easy one to explain when you consider the pleasure Japanese people seem to take in perfection writ small - the beauty in the tiny. Anyone who's ordered a bento box would understand that.

The Japanese appreciate splendour on a small scale: a perfectly sliced piece of fish, a delicately folded piece of paper. The gentle perfection of a cherry blossom is nature's example.

The real issue, however, is those cameras, or more specifically the thousands of photos currently being taken.

What the hell do they do with them all? Keep them? In that case every Japanese house must be groaning at the seams with cherry blossom photos, its paper walls covered many times over with testaments to their search for the perfect flower.

Or maybe they throw them all out after a while, consigning the photos to the same fate as their subject, gone like the beautiful moment in time they represent.

Who knows? I certainly don't. What I can tell you, though, is that this bizarre and ancient custom is strangely contagious.

You see your first cherry blossom and you shrug, maybe smile at the sight of a tree in full glorious bloom, then move on. Then you think, "Well, I'm here, I should probably take a photo like everyone else is."

So you take a photo of the best, most lovely little flower you can find - but it's not ... quite ... perfect. "I'll just find another one," you think.

Before you know it, you're roaming the parks with a gleam in your eye, elbowing locals out of the way, kicking over tripods in your hunt for floral fulfilment. Maybe a small cluster of them would look better? Or a whole tree? Or a line of trees? Or a single petal? What if I placed myself in the photo, standing among the flowers?

As you have probably figured out, I now have a lot of pictures of cherry blossoms. And they're really beautiful. I just have no idea what to do with them.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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