Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Parties under the cherry blossoms

When I went to Japan, spring was just spreading over the island nation. Of course, Japan is probably most famous for its beautiful sakura, or cherry blossoms, that bloom across the country like a pink wave. They begin as early as the end of January in the far south, and finish as late as May in the northern island of Hokkaido. In Akita, the cherry blossoms arrived in late April, just after I got there, as if an earthquake-shattered Japan was donning her best kimono to distract me from the shambles around her. Cherry blossoms bloom quite suddenly, with entire trees bursting into cloud-like fluff seemingly overnight. Just as quickly as they appear, they fade within a couple weeks, gently sprinkling their petals over the ground like tears until they are spent and green leaves has taken their place.  

The Japanese love sakura more than any other flower. It has been depicted in paintings, lauded in poems, and glorified as the national flower. The sakura mark the 100 yen coin. It is a popular girl’s name, Sakura have even been made into sweets. The blooming of the cherry tree is both a happy and melancholic event. As the harbingers of spring, it represents renewal, harmony, growth, and beauty. However, their rapid disappearance carries symbols of death, impermanence, and letting go. This duality is a common theme in the Japanese religion*, especially the Buddhist elements.

One of the positive associations with the sakura is the tradition of hanami, or flower viewing. “Flower viewing” is a literal translation, although there is no real, concise English equivalent that communicates the same concept. Hanami is hanami. It is the tradition of going out with family or friends to sit under the blooming cherry trees to watch and appreciate their beauty. It is a chance to feel a sense of oneness with nature. It is also a party, often including lots of drinking, picnic food, and rowdy behavior.

The hanami has a long history in Japan. Although records of the gatherings are found in Japan’s first historical texts, such as the Nihon Shoki, dating them as far back as the 3rd century, the tradition is said to have really begun in the Nara Period (710-794), with its full form and sakura-only focus beginning in the Heian Period (794-1185). Like many beloved Japanese traditions, it began as an activity for the wealthy and high class, and eventually found its way into the hearts of the common folk. It is so firmly rooted in the culture that it is enjoyed by nearly everyone in the nation, and news stations even have daily reports in the spring to show exactly where the sakura are beginning to bloom. Schools take their students on hanami outings, families crowd the parks with their children, eating obento (packed lunches) beneath the shade, and friends gather together to drink and enjoy the brief time of the cherry tree in full bloom. The tradition of hanami communicates the same sentiments of the sakura, perhaps even more so. It especially emphasizes the idea of “ichi go, ichi e,” which means “One moment, one encounter.” English speakers may be more familiar with the equivalent of “carpe diem,” “seize the day,” or “live in the moment.” The sakura are a brief beauty, and the hanami is the best way to enjoy them while they last. (http://thinkjapanblog.com/sakura-hanami-flower-viewing.html)

In a culture where many people are disregarding their heritage and old traditions, hanami and the love of sakura is one example of a tradition that continues to remain strong even in the face of constant technological development, busy work schedules, and endless distractions. Even the most overloaded salary man, the busiest housewife, and the most absorbed gaming or texting teen gather together to enjoy an afternoon of hanami. Hanami and sakura are the essence of Japan and the Japanese people.

For someone from dry Colorado, the sheer number of cherry trees and the culture surrounding them was completely astounding. I spent a lot of time trying to take as many pictures and videos of the blooms as I could, always aware of their ephemeral nature. I watched the gradual invasion of green with apprehension, despairing at the scattering dead but still beautiful petals on the ground.

 I delighted at discovering how many different kinds of cherry trees were on the AIU campus. Below, you can see a small sampling I collected. The shapes are so beautiful and distinct, and yet they all carry the same emotional symbolism. Someday, I will do a small, watercolor painting of this shot. According to Japan-Guide.com, there are over 100 kinds of cherry trees in Japan. The different kinds range in the number of petals, their general shape, the way they hang on the tree, their color (white to bright pink, as well as yellow), and the location and length of their blooming period. Some of them are wild, but most of them are cultivated. I think the three below are called imose, soushunzakura, and akebono, from left to right. (Those are only my guesses!) (http://www7b.biglobe.ne.jp/~mainn/sakura/sakura.html)

The scattered trees around campus were beautiful, but there is nothing like seeing dozens of trees clustered together. My trip to a town called Kakunodate was the perfect chance to see that the beauty of sakura grows exponentially with each additional tree.

 Their splendor made the rainy days of early spring as far from dreary as possible. And yet, I did not feel the rumored sadness when the last petal fell. The lush green that had replaced the pink was just as gorgeous. Perhaps I am not familiar enough with their passing, or the intense heat of the Japanese summers, but I felt only invigoration from the blooming of the sakura, and the green summer with its new flowers continued the inspiration. I think I focused on the symbolism of rebirth and somehow missed the melancholy meaning of death. All I know is that the memory of those beautiful pink and white clouds springs to my mind’s eye with ease, the feel of the petals lingers of my fingertips, and the curious floral yet fruity taste of sakura ice cream still dances on my tongue. The sakura may be evanescent, but the delight of my memories is constant.

Below are some of the best pictures of sakura I (or my boyfriend) took while in Japan.

(Me by the pinkest sakura I could find.)

(A pathway near the river at Kakunodate.)

(The white cherry blossoms lining the river. I wish it had been sunnier.)

(A set of three pictures from a particularly scenic rest area on a bus trip. Sakura under a blue sky are so beautiful!)

(Sakura petals on the ground.)

The background of my blog is another picture I took, up close. Can you spot the spider I also managed to photograph?


*Many people distinguish between Shinto and Buddhism as Japan’s major religions; however they have become so intricately linked over the centuries that they are almost a single, uniquely Japanese religion.

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