It takes a special kind of traveler to plan a trip around a phenomenon as capricious and fragile as seasonal flowers. As spring arrives in Japan, many foreign tourists will stay away this year, but -- despite the recent series of terrible tragedies -- Japanese meteorologists are still tracking the "cherry blossom front" as it slowly pushes north over the islands, waking the countryside from the slumber of winter.
The metaphor of a spring emerging from a cold winter and the ephemeral nature of beauty and life have always had a particular resonance for poets, artists, dreamers, spiritual sorts, nature lovers and even politicians. Over the past century, Japan has sent tens of thousands of flowering ambassadors around the world, creating gardens of cherry-blossom peace and beauty that bloom every spring in unlikely places like Newark, Toronto, Philadelphia, Macon, Ga., and Istanbul. Even a town of serious workaholics like Washington, D.C., takes a brief pause to embrace the hanami spirit with plenty of suit-clad serious types lounging carefree for a few spring days in the shadow of the Jefferson memorial under the pink clouds of falling petals. It's hard to imagine a more pure cultural impulse than sharing beauty -- from one culture to another or the communal experience of crowds of people letting nature interrupt their daily routines.
Here are 14 places where flowers dominate the landscape, remind us of the endless cycles of nature, and command the attention of even the most distracted humans, at least for a short time.