Saturday, March 22, 2008

Party under the cherry blossoms

The first sign of spring in Japan is the plum blossom, or« ume » (梅) in Japanese. However, cherry blossoms, « sakuras » (桜), are more spectacular, and are the favourite of Japanese people. During a week, the trees are entirely covered by elegant pale rose flowers. In Central Japan, the Sakura season is also the start of the fiscal year, and is associated with big changes: the start of a new school year, and new assignments in companies. Cherry blossoms are forecasted using the most modern weather forecast science. A dedicated computer analyses a sample of trees, winter temperatures and historical data to compute the date of blossom. A special story in the weather forecast shows the position of the “blossom front” (桜前線) on the country. It starts in the south, and from March to April, travels up north through the main Japanese islands. In the north and in the mountains, there can be sakuras up to May. At a given place, the flowers are usually visible for a week. But a heavy rain or wind can disturb well-worked schedules, by making all the flowers fall early. Most current trees are of the « Somei Yoshino » (染井吉野) type, created in Toshima(豊島), a district of Tokyo, in the 19th century. The trees are all identical and so usually blossom at exactly the same time.
The most ancient Japanese chronicles mention flower viewing, or « hanami » (お花見) as a hobby for the nobility. Sakuras are taken seriously in Japan, and every garden or public building should have its own tree. Dilettantes will be happy with a simple walk in the park near their home, or slightly better, in a famous « hanami » spot. Several thousand trees are planted in the most famous places, sometimes lit-up at night. There can be long queues in front of the best places. However, the true “hanami” amateur will book a few square meters in a park under the trees several days in advance. This is done by laying a big blue plastic sheet with the name and date of party on the floor. Friends, colleagues and family will meet there for a “hanami party”. Newcomers who want to show their dedication to the company often wake-up very early in the morning to book the best spot to have a party with their colleagues.
Every available corner under the trees ends up being covered by a not-so-charming- blue plastic sheet. The atmosphere of hanami party is not really contemplative, as guests enjoy the food and alcohol they brought. Food stalls also sell hot food and more alcohol. Sometimes, a portable karaoke engine adds to the noise. A few dozen beer cans later, the party will be drunk jokes and loud laughs. The Japanese proverb “cakes, more than flowers” (花より団子), seems perfectly suited to the situation.
In China, sakura flowers are a symbol of womanliness. However, Japanese people associate sakuras to the transient nature of life, and a gentle nostalgia of passing time “Mono no Aware” (物の哀れ). Yakuzas, the japanese mafia, use sakura as a symbol of their short and exciting life, and often have the flowers tattooed on their back. The pink flowers were sometimes painted on Second World War fighters. They are also a symbol of Japan, and are also drawn on the back of the 100 Yen coin. There is also a “sakura” diplomacy, such as the double gift of several thousand trees to the United States in 1912 and 1965 to celebrate friendships between the two countries. The trees are now planted in Washington DC, where an annual festival is organized to enjoy the blossoms.
Sakura trees are close relatives to classical cherry trees (さくらんぼ), but do not bear fruits. Flowers and leaves are preserved in salt to be used as a condiment. They appear in numerous pastries, both modern and traditional. Sakura-mochis, a rice cake wrapped in a sakura leaf, is eaten especially on the “Girl day” on the 3rd of march. As every traditional Japanese food, there are regional differences: in Kanto (関東), a rolled pancake is wrapped in the leaf, whereas in Kansai (関西), a rice ball is wrapped in the leaf. Sakura herb tea is served to the bride and groom on their wedding day, as the flower is of good omen. Their delicate pattern is also printed on china and kimonos to give them a fresh spring feeling.
It is very easy to find sakura trees in Japan, as there is at least one in every park. A hike in the mountains at the right season will allow you to enjoy cherry blossoms in a pristine environment. We could write pages comparing the best sakura spots. The following places are anyways worth a visit:
  • Ueno Park (上野公園) in Tokyo, close to Ueno station (上野駅) served by JR trains and subway Hibiya (日比谷線) and Ginza (銀座線). This vast park is host to the National Museum of Japan. During the sakura season, the park is full of walkers and sakura parties.
  • Inokashira Park (井の頭公園) near Kichijoji station (吉祥寺駅), served by JR Chuo line (中央線) and Keio Inokashira line (京王井の頭線). This charming park is in a posh Tokyo suburb. It is possible to rent a small swan-shaped boat to enjoy the cherry blossoms from the lake. Rumour is that the local goddest will bring bad omen to couples riding this boat, and the couple will soon separate. You may want to adapt your itinerary in the park to your personal situation.
  • Shinjuku Gyoen park (新宿御苑) near Shinjukugyoen-mae station (新宿御苑前), served by the subway Marunouchi line (丸ノ内線). There is an entrance fee.
  • Meguro River (目黒川) near Nakameguro station (中目黒駅), served by the Tokyu Toyoko line (東急東横線) and the subway Hibiya line (日比谷線). This narrow river is entirely covered by cherry blossoms. This is not the best place to party, as there is not much space under the trees, but it makes for a wonderful walk..Kyomizudera temple (清水寺) in Kyoto, 20 minutes walk uphill from Gojo station (五条) on Keihan Line (京阪線). From the old wooden terrace up the hill, you have a superb view on a sea of cherry blossoms and Kyoto city. The sakuras are wonderfully lit-up at night. There is an entrance fee (700 Yens, 4 Euros), and partying under the trees is not authorized.

1 comment:

Y-Maeda said...

Hello nice to meet you.
KO-N-NI-CHI-WA (^_^)v
I am Japanese.
I saw your wonderful site.
Please link to this site !