Thursday, January 16, 2014

Memories of Japan: Cherry Blossom Viewing

Today is Thursday, January 16, 2014.

The Japanese are hyper-aware of the seasonality of flowers, but the word hanami (flower viewing) almost always refers to cherry blossom viewing.  One of the great pleasures in life, as far as the Japanese are concerned, is enjoying things that are transient, here now and gone tomorrow.  In fact, they have what I consider to be a pretty healthy outlook on life, in that respect.  Instead of expecting life to be wonderful all the time, they simply try to maintain balance in their lives, and enjoy simple pleasures in the present, as they appear.  In other words, enjoying the ethereal beauty of cherry blossoms is like icing on the cake, not the cake, itself.  The fact that the blossoms last only a week or so heightens the pleasure of viewing them.

Office ladies save a spot in Ueno Park
for their  colleagues to join them
later on.  Photo: Linda LeBoutillier
Just as we watch for peak autumn leaf viewing here in the northern United States, the Japanese keep careful track of the "cherry blossom front" (桜前線 sakura-zensen), the progress of which is announced on the weather forecast.  Starting in Okinawa, which is at the same latitude as the state of Florida and the bottom part of Texas, the front usually starts around the beginning of February and moves slowly northward, arriving in the Osaka area slightly before it hits Tokyo, in late March to early April.  It doesn't reach Hokkaido, the northern island (about the same latitude as the states of Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, etc.), until May.  

The reason people watch the cherry blossom front so closely is that they like to plan cherry blossom viewing parties.  If you think these are staid little affairs, you are wrong.  As with any event that involves young people, there is plenty of drinking and laughter going on.  I often saw small groups of "office ladies" during the day who went out to Ueno Park or some other especially good spot with a huge, blue plastic tarp, which they would spread on the ground to put dibs on the best spot for the employees of their company.  They would sit there all afternoon, saving the spot for the rest of the office staff, who would show up after work with beer in tow.  In Ueno Park, they string up temporary paper lanterns, which I thought kind of ruined the scenery, but which make it easier for people to have evening parties.  

They're not really watching the
blossoms.  They're really just
drinking beer.  Ueno Park, Tokyo.
Photo: Linda LeBlutillier

There are a lot of well-known places to enjoy cherry blossoms all over Japan, including parks, castle grounds, and temple or shrine grounds.  In Tokyo, the best places to view cherries are Ueno Park and Shinjuku Gyoen.  In Kyoto, it's Daigoji Temple or Ninnaji Temple.  In Osaka, you go to Osaka Castle, Himeji Castle, or the Japan Mint.  (Yes, where they mint money!).   The picture of myself at the Japan Mint shows me wearing long sleeves and a sweater, so it was still chilly, but the park was crowded that year because the blossoms were fabulous, especially the "double blossoms" that the cherry trees at the Japan Mint are famous for.   If you look behind me, you can see that I was pleasantly photo-bombed by a sweet-looking older couple, who were watching my friend Mitsuko take my picture surrounded by cherry blossoms.

At the Japan Mint in Osaka, late 1970s.
Notice the older couple behind me.
Photo: Linda LeBoutillier
Here is a link to a list of the 100 best cherry blossom viewing sites in Japan, compiled by the Japan Cherry Blossom Association according to six criteria given at the top of the page.

The tune of the song Sakura, Sakura is familiar to many Americans.  Here is a video with a great version of the song, featuring Keiko Inamura. Below are the lyrics in Japanese (romaji) and English translation.  As well, I've included an iconic picture of cherry blossoms taken at some shrine or other near Mt. Fuji.  It's one of those "double whammy" pictures - two major symbols of Japan in one shot.  What many people don't realize is that it's harder than you think to get a good shot of this venerable mountain, as the air has to be perfectly clear for a good view.  :-) 

Sakura sakura 
yayoi no sora wa
mi-watasu kagiri
kasumi ka kumo ka 
nioi zo izuru
izaya izaya
mini yukan

Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms, 
Across the Spring sky, 
As far as you can see,
Is it a mist, or clouds? 
Fragrance in the air. 
Come now, come, 
Let's go and look at them!

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