IN FULL BLOOM
Date Published: 4/1/2012
Spring is the perfect time to visit Japan. Not only has the winter cold finally given way to mild, pleasant days, it’s also the cherry blossom season. The gorgeous pink blossoms or sakura make the landscape look like a page out of a fairy tale, turning every tree-lined street a pretty pink with soft petals gently falling off branches. It seems the perfect way to bid old man Winter goodbye and welcome Spring with such a dazzling display of nature’s brilliant shades. The locals just adore the arrival of the cherry blossoms as it puts everyone in a happy mood with hanami or blossom-viewing parties taking place under virtually every tree.
There is perhaps no more readily identifiable symbol of Japan than the cherry blossom, making it Japan’s de facto national flower although the yellow chrysanthemum is often regarded as the national flower as it has been an imperial emblem since 1868. So popular is the sakura in Japan, the approach of cherry blossom season triggers a nationwide fervour only seen in other countries at royal weddings or the World Cup. Each year, as soon as the winter chill starts to fade and the days lengthen, the anticipation starts building in the air for the buds to appear.
Hanami is invariably translated as ‘flower-viewing’, but this term is totally inadequate for conveying the true spirit of the word. The English language just isn’t equipped with a word for ‘getting together under a tree with friends to share good food and drink while contemplating the transient beauty of the cherry blossom’. The activity spans all ages and social positions, with the young and old, families, friends and co-workers all partaking in it with equal gusto. No one is unmoved or unaffected. Many companies close for an afternoon so workers can attend the official hanami party.
The practice of hanami goes back over a 1,000 years to the Heian Period (794 – 1185). During that time, plum trees, which blossom slightly earlier than the cherry in February, were the focus of the celebrations. Only later did the sakura supersede the plum in popularity. At first, hanami parties were only for the aristocracy and court nobility, who enjoyed looking at the beautiful blossoms that inspired them to compose poems and haiku. The cherry blossoms, however, reached the height of popularity towards the end of the 16th century. The stunning beauty of the blooms was so irresistible that even the great warlord and unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537 – 1598), was a fervent fan. His extravagant hanami parties at Daigoji Temple in Kyoto are legendary.
During the Edo period (1600 -1868) cherry trees were collected from all over Japan and cultivated at the mansions of the feudal lords in Tokyo. As horticultural techniques developed, lots of cherry trees were planted in public parks, temple gardens and along river banks. This enabled the population at large to enjoy their own hanami, characterised by lots of drinking, eating and dancing. Today, in addition to its 10 native species of cherry tree, Japan has around 300 ornamental varieties, the result of 1,000 years of horticulture. Of these, one of the most spectacular varieties is the weeping cherry, or shidarezakura.
However, as with all good bacchanalia, a spiritual element underlies all this merry-making. Until the 20th century, Japan was still mainly an agricultural country with over 70 percent of the population living in scattered village communities. In spring, collective pilgrimages were made to the surrounding mountains to hold gatherings under the cherry trees to welcome nature’s rebirth. This event brought communities together, and was an eagerly awaited part of the pastoral calendar.
After these outings it was customary to bring back a branch of sakura and stand it in the rice fields as an invitation to the mountain gods to protect the harvest. It was believed that the gods would be attracted by the beauty of the flowering branch. With such divine origins, it is small wonder that the Japanese people’s reverence for the blossom is so deep-rooted.
These days, while hanami is basically a great excuse to let your hair down and enjoy a good picnic, the deeper cultural significance remains firmly in the hearts and minds of the Japanese people. The communion with nature is still a vital aspect in the Japanese psyche. The English poet Keats wrote that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” But for the Japanese, the beauty lies in the fleeting moment, in the transitory joy of the blossom.
"We don’t just admire cherry blossoms because they are beautiful and fragile, that’s the same for everyone the world over,” Miyuki Hotta, a 50-year-old school teacher, told me. “It’s also because they die without lingering on, which is how people traditionally felt a good samurai should die too.”
To this day, even before the blossoms are fully open, the air buzzes with the imminent approach of sakura season. By mid-February many shops are already decorated with sakura displays reflecting the festive mood, just as Western shops put up trees and tinsel at Christmas time. Supermarkets stock lavish o-bento lunch boxes containing as many as 20 different delicacies, including rice balls, tempura vegetables, prawns, grilled salmon, and burdock root – all neatly set out in separate compartments. Electronics stores even sell cherry blossom screen-savers!
The excitement reaches fever pitch once the first buds start blooming. TV, radio and press feed their audience daily updates on the blossoms’ progress. The degree of ‘openness’ of the flower is expressed as a percentage. Train stations display blossom charts, so people can find out where the trees are at their best. People discuss the statistics as avidly as British people discuss the weather. You’ll hear passionate discussion such as: “This weekend they are going to be 80% open!” or “They reckon it’ll be 100% by Wednesday.”
Dressed by Nature
Paper lanterns with light bulbs are hung on cherry trees along river banks and parks. People start making plans for securing the best spot under their favourite trees. Sakura no meisho or party spots, are reserved days in advance, by simply placing a large blue tarp on the ground with a note bearing the owner’s name. In this polite and gracious country, no one would dream of stealing someone else’s space once it has been reserved in this manner. When the season begins, popular areas get as crowded as a rock festival.
Once open, the blossoms transform the landscape into an ephemeral wonderland. They brighten riverbanks and public parks, burst out of pine-clad hills like puffs of pink smoke, form luminescent tunnels on mountain roads and soften the harsh edges of the city’s concrete structures. At night, the effect of the lanterns glowing on the tree creates a surreal cottoncandy grotto that becomes quite magical after a glass or two of sake.
Time to Rejoice
At the main viewing areas, stalls spring up selling all manner of food and drinks, from whole squid on a stick to grilled fish or chicken, hearty noodle dishes or takoyaki octopus dumplings. Some people prefer to bring shop-bought o-bento boxes, and plenty of snacks: Edamame, dried fish or squid and rice crackers. Others bring portable hotplates, barbecues and grills and cook up their own feasts. The air becomes rich with the sweet-smelling smoke billowing from so many grills.
Hanami usually begin around lunchtime and can go on till late evening. The celebrations start off fairly sedate and become increasingly boisterous as night falls. Salarymen sit cross-legged in their suits and ties, red-faced from all the beer and sake. Even elderly ladies join in with cans in hand. Some people bring kerosene stoves to keep away the night chill, and it’s not unusual for revellers to bring portable karaoke machines. Who doesn’t enjoy a good sing-song after a few drinks?
Despite the alcohol, the atmosphere remains goodnatured, almost beatific. The beauty of the blossoms seems to evoke an awe-inspired respect, as if the revellers were in some sacred place. Which, in a way, we were. Last year, a total stranger handed my wife and me an unopened 2-litre bottle of sake. “Please take it and enjoy the sakura,” he smiled. And this being Japan, once the party is over, people are admirably conscientious about disposing of their trash in the containers provided, or even taking it home with them.
The sakura flowers are only at their best for a week to 10 days, depending on the weather, so timing is crucial. One heavy rainstorm or one windy day will bring them all fluttering down in a blizzard of blossom. After 14 years in Japan, I’ve learned to make the most of this brief viewing window, knowing that all too soon the spell will be over, the city will lose its pink mantle for another year and harsh reality will return. But I find comfort in the knowledge that next winter, just as the cold weather starts to feel like it’s never going to end, little buds will start appearing on the cherry trees’ bare branches, and hanami days will soon be here again.
Best Spots for Blossoms
Blossoms will be bursting in parks, riverbanks and temple gardens nationwide, so you won’t have any trouble finding them. Some of the most famous places are:
Tokyo, Ueno Park One of the capital’s most popular spots. Over 1,000 trees!
Osaka, Osaka Castle 4,000 trees.
Kyoto, Maruyama Park Next to Yasaka Shrine. Look out for the large Weeping Cherry.
Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Famous for its vermillion torii gate rising from the sea. Over 1,300 cherry trees around the shrine area.
How to Hanami
Hanami can be as simple as a stroll in the park or as elaborate as a large-scale picnic for 20 or more people. Just get yourself an o-bento and something to drink from any supermarket or convenience store, head to a park or riverbank, and join in the fun!
Cherry Blossom Season
The cherry blossom front moves from south to north at about 30 kms a day. On the main island of Honshu, blossoms peak from late March to early April. Exact dates vary from year to year depending on the weather, so keep your eyes on the TV for regional updates. Weather forecasts usually include blossom-viewing maps, showing the best viewing areas.
Getting There AirAsia X flies to Haneda, Tokyo 6 times a week and 4 times a week to Osaka from Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details.