I lay on my back, shoes kicked off, belly full and eyes skywards. A sea of people surrounded me, and the sound of sake-fuelled laughter hit fever pitch. From housewives and teenagers to salarymen and hippies, the crowds of prostrate picnickers on blue tarpaulins in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park were as densely packed as a Monday morning rush-hour train.
The park revellers represented a colourful microcosm of Japanese society: this is the one time of year when the city’s tribes overcome their differences and are united in a single passion – an admiration of the nation’s springtime cherry blossoms. In Japan, the art of blossom appreciation is as revered a national practice as sushi-making and sumo wrestling. The blossom does not simply herald the coming of spring; it marks a rare opportunity to press the pause button, contemplate the haiku-inspiring beauty of nature and ponder the fleeting frailty of life.
My arrival in the park for my first hanami (cherry blossom-viewing) picnic followed a morning of baking dumplings and preparing bento boxes with a bunch of girlfriends, all determined to train me in the more virtuous ways of a Japanese housewife.
Hours later, laden down with Tupperware containers, clanking bottles of plum wine and cans of beer, we made our way to the entrance of the park. As I surveyed the tsunami of picnickers heading the same way, my friend reassured me: “It’s OK, Hiroshi cycled down here at six yesterday morning to save a place under the trees. There’s room for all of us there.”
Weaving through the exuberant crowds was no mean feat – but Japan is a nation that excels at thriving in areas of limited space. Hanami picnics, I discovered, are testimony to this. Squeezing into our space, we neatly lined up our shoes on the edge of the tarpaulin, laid out our spread, poured a drink, raised a toast to the sakura – the clouds of dusty pink flowers suspended above our heads as far as the eye could see – and the party began.
Forget lesser-spotted jaguars. One of the hardest things to pin down in the natural world is not a rare creature of the bush but Japan’s first cherry blossom of the year.
This goes some way to explaining the annual cherry blossom fever ignited by a high-profile battle of the forecasters – each determined to predict the correct date of the first flower – during the run-up to sakura season. From the Japan Meteorological Agency’s cherry blossom forecasts to the sakura officials sent out daily by local city hall offices to monitor the growth on trees, waiting for the buds to burst is a serious business.
Once the blossoms appear, they are as fleeting as their arrival was capricious: full bloom spans from five to 12 days depending on the weather. Therefore although there are countless cherry blossom festivals across the country, their dates are often unfixed until the moment officials start hanging lanterns in trees and the picnickers show up.
The good news for visitors is that the trees bloom at different times across Japan. It is possible to catch them in different districts over several months as the ‘cherry blossom front’ advances. Blooming varies from year to year, depending in part on the weather in the previous months. The first blooms spring into flower on the tropical southern Okinawan Islands as early as January before hitting Tokyo around the end of March or early April. The blossom front continues north until it hits the farthest reaches of Hokkaido as late as May.
The most widely celebrated blossoms are the pale pink somei yoshino, which resemble puffs of clouds at the peak of their bloom. However, a symphony of cherry blossom trees grow, from pretty weeping varieties to the slightly later-blooming kanzan trees, with their deep-pink, multi-petalled blooms.
Some people pen nature-inspired poems on the fleeting beauty of life. Others snap photographs on high-tech cameras. But there is one activity in which all Japanese indulge during sakura season: they party. From schoolgirls to pensioners, every sector of society enjoys hanami picnics under the trees – often including bento boxes of sushi, rice, vegetables, fish and pretty sticky cakes known as mochi, washed down with sake, beer and Japanese spirits such as shochu and umeshu.
As the cherry blossoms normally coincide with the start of a new academic and fiscal year in Japan, it is one of the few times in the calendar when the entire nation stops to catch its breath. Parks, shrines and riverbanks are festooned with lanterns, and flower-related festivities continue until dark.
The parties subside – and the hangovers set in – only after the petals have hit full bloom (known as mankai, normally a week after their arrival) and begin to flutter off the trees in what is poetically described as sakura fubuki – cherry blossom snowfalls.
Cherry blossom fever is no passing fad: the reverential appreciation of flowering trees was an idea copied from China as early as the eighth century.
While Chinese poets and aristocrats admired the beauty of the plum tree with refined flower-viewing sessions known as hanami (literally ‘looking at flowers’), the Japanese adopted an adulation for one of their prettiest indigenous plants: the cherry tree.
Their fleeting brilliance, followed by their sudden disappearance, was soon embraced by the Japanese as a metaphor for the passing of life itself. Since then, there has been no stopping the power of the flower: it has appeared in centuries of paintings, poems and novels; it has been adopted in ceremonial springtime banquets; and its image was even painted onto the wartime aircraft of the Japanese army.
Today, judging by the crowds that squeeze with fervour into parks, castle grounds and along riverbanks across the country with every spring – not to mention the anime, manga and other modern subcultures that celebrate the sakura – the nation’s love affair with cherry blossom shows no signs of waning in the 21st century.
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