'A Reminder That Nature Is Strong': In Japan, A 1,000-Year-Old Cherry Tree Blooms For now, the coronavirus pandemic has stopped tourists from visiting the ancient tree in Fukushima prefecture. "No matter what," says the tree's caretaker, "the cherry blossoms are still there."

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

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In the small town of Miharu in northern Japan, a giant cherry tree has stood for more than a thousand years. It's bloomed through wars, earthquakes, even a nuclear disaster. And now in the midst of a pandemic that has swept the world, it is blooming yet again. Here's NPR's Kat Lonsdorf.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: The tree is one of those natural wonders that takes your breath away the first time you see it.

There it is. Wow.

It's called the Takizakura, and it's one of the oldest and most impressive cherry trees in Japan, more than 30 feet tall with big weeping branches that bend toward the Earth. Its name literally means waterfall cherry tree. I first saw the Takizakura back in early March before it was blooming with Sidafumi Hirata. He grew up here, has visited the tree all his life, and now he's employed by the town to protect it. The tree usually draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and is cherished by the whole community here.

SIDAFUMI HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Hirata pointed to a small shrine at the base of the tree with offerings people had left...

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: ...Rice, salt, a tall bottle of sake.

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: For the spirits of the tree, he said. The Takizakura has been here for well over a thousand years, a silent observer as the world changed around it. It's been a constant for this rural farming community, especially in times of trouble, like in 2011 when the most powerful earthquake in Japan's recorded history hit off the coast. It triggered a massive tsunami that hit the Daiichi nuclear power plant about 30 miles away, which caused a meltdown blanketing nearby towns with radiation. After the earthquake, Hirata rushed to the tree. It was fine, unharmed, but for years, visitors stayed away worried about radiation.

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: Hirata said the tree seemed sad, lonely. But still, it bloomed and Hirata kept watch.

HIRATA: (Through interpreter) Whenever I went out, I worried. But every time I saw that the tree is still standing unchanged, it was always a relief.

LONSDORF: In recent years, visitors started trickling back. Things were finally getting back to normal. And then the coronavirus hit. At the end of March, I went back to the tree with Hirata. Workers were building a path around the base just like they do every year in preparation for the thousands of people who usually come. But Tokyo was heading into lockdown. International tourism had ground to a halt. Hirata acknowledged tough times were probably ahead, but he said the tree has been through those before.

HIRATA: (Through interpreter) This tree has lived so long, and the longer you live, the more bad times you see, the more tragedies. But the tree has also seen good times. Life is layers, layers of good and bad.

LONSDORF: And Hirata said one thing was certain - the tree would still bloom. He pointed to small red buds.

HIRATA: (Non-English language spoken).

LONSDORF: They're starting, he said, just a few days away. That was two weeks ago. Since then, Japan has declared a national emergency. Much of the world is at a standstill. It is indeed a tough time. But in the small town of Miharu, Japan, tucked into a valley between two hills, a giant cherry tree is right now bursting into a cascade of delicate pink flowers, just like it has for more than a thousand years, and it will again.

Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Fukushima, Japan.

SHAPIRO: Kat is NPR's Above the Fray fellow. The fellowship supports reporting from undercovered parts of the world. And you can see a photo of the tree in full bloom at npr.org.

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