Cherry Blossom Season
by Jordan Mounteer
One of the more fantastic and beautiful yearly occurrences in Japan has to be in late March and early April. During this time winter is slowly coming to an end, and things are starting to get warmer – and with that also comes a perceptible change in the surroundings. More specifically, this is when the numerous cherry trees and plum trees in Japan begin to undergo a bloom, and the entire event lasts a little less than two weeks in most places and usually coincides with the vernal equinox. During these two weeks, locals and tourists alike flock to special regions and locations throughout Japan to view the blossoms in their full glory, a tradition which has deep historical roots dating from ancient times and is known commonly as hanami. These festivals usually coincide with the blooms, but of course it varies slightly throughout Japan – for example, Hokkaido often experiences later blooms than the more southern islands.
Nevertheless, this is an important time for many Japanese and although it’s not an official holiday, it’s still a time for families, friends, and couples to take a stroll into parks or along canals to take in the breathtaking beauty offered by blossoms. Generally speaking there are a number of informal rituals associated with hanami and for a newcomer to Japan it can be a bit surprising to take a walk into an otherwise empty park the rest of the year and find it literally crowded with hundreds of people lying on the grass under the pink and rosy canopies of trees, enjoying picnics or, in the case of some, actually performing karaoke with their friends via mobile karaoke machines.
At the same time, this is also a time of contemplation and reflection – because it more or less unofficially marks the end of winter and the beginning of a new year, there is a degree of enjoyment, enthusiasm, and lifted spirits during this time. People take it as an opportunity to get outside more and enjoy the sunshine, or to read a book under a tree in the shade, and this is what really hallmarks Japan from other countries like Canada or the United States: there is a latent but embedded sense of relaxation, an emphasis on slowing down and taking the time to appreciate one’s surroundings.
And while cherry trees inhabit almost every city, sometimes lining roads or canals, other times standing on their own in abandoned parks, there are a few places in particular that have become famous over the centuries for their blooms. One of these has to be Yoshinoyama – the mountain refuge, located near Nara, is also the starting point of one of the more famous Shinto pilgrimage trails in Japan, but during the spring months it comes alive. There are nearly 30,000 Yoshino cherry trees, a species dedicated to this sacred mountain, and around mid-April they erupt into bloom, creating a virtual landscape of color that looks like a pink cloud. The breathtaking scenery has inspired many artists and writers throughout Japan, and there is a whole culture around hanami itself and the cultivation of these trees. Many of them are extremely old, upwards of 70 years or more, and they are prized especially for their unique flowers. The more petals there are, the rarer they are.
Other notable sites include Himeji Castle, just a short train ride from Osaka and Kobe, which is one of the oldest surviving castles that somehow managed to evade the bombings of WWII. Recently renovated, the castle now gleams as white as ever (it is also known as the White Egret Castle, and as you can imagine its sentinel animal are egrets that can often be spotted in the trees that surround the courtyards). Flower viewing here is just as much a treat, as there are several ‘circles’ around the central castle. The inner courtyard becomes an interconnected canopy of reddish-pink flowers and it’s quite common to see university and school students here studying under the branches as well as older men and women making visits to the local attached shrines. Outside the main moat you can walk along water where gigantic koi fish swim past the surface of the water and the occasional wind causes a shower of petals to fall around you like a snowstorm.
photo by http://medicare18.com/1257.html
Further north in Hokkaido, near Nagano, is another one of Japan’s top 100 hanami locations. Known as Takato Castle, the surrounding garden here is just as spectacular and has over 1500 trees of the Kohigan variety. Unlike their Yoshino cousins, these are a bit redder and can sometimes be tinged with copper. At night the trees themselves are lit up from underneath, creating an effect that is reminiscent of something out a dream – with lights illuminating their canopies from below, it almost looks as if they’re floating on the darkness. Of course, nothing makes a festival – or matsuri – complete like the presence of food and vendors from all over take advantage of this time to set up stalls throughout these areas. Of course, it always depends on where you are, but you can be certain of running into some common takeaway cuisine such as takoyaki (battered balls filled with vegetables and octopus and sprinkled with bonito flakes) and skewered meats such as shrimp or cuttlefish.
Wherever you happen to be during hanami, I think the best advice I ever received was to visit one of these sites, even if you’re swamped with work – because it’s not an official holiday it can be hard for some people to find the time to get out and explore, but the short duration of the actual cherry blossoms is something that no one should miss, especially if it’s their first time!
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