Spellbound by sakura

The art of chasing cherry blossoms in Tokyo

Spellbound by Sakura

Imagine soft, feather-thin petals falling from the branches above you. This silent shower of snow-and-strawberry-coloured flowers is not unlike dream magic, except it’s really happening, if only for the briefest of moments.

Ah yes, sakura season is upon us again. From the end of March to early May every year, more than a million cherry blossom chasers travel to Japan from around the world to catch these flowers in full bloom. During these few precious weeks both locals and foreigners alike partake gleefully in the centuries-old tradition of hanami or flower viewing.

 

THE HANAMI HABIT

Cherry blossoms are the flowers of any cherry trees classified under the genus Prunus. Japan alone has over 200 types of sakura, from the pristine, nearly pure white someiyoshino to the rich pink of the heavily-petalled yaezakura. The shidarezakura, also known as the weeping cherry, has graceful, falling branches resembling those of a weeping willow.

With such a delightful spectacle awaiting the curious traveller, when’s a good time to visit Japan then, to catch the cherry blossoms at their absolute best? Fans keep themselves updated on the dates when the cherry blossoms first begin to flower and when they are in full bloom thanks to a sakura forecast in the weather section of TV news and websites during this time of year.

Cherry blossom petals

Interestingly, the “cherry blossom front” (or sakura zensen) moves from South to North. Therefore, the earliest trees to bloom – as early as January or February – are located at the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa. The last blossoms are seen in the northern island of Hokkaido; in its capital Sapporo, they don’t start blooming before early May. For most of Japan though, including Tokyo, the flowering season is from late March to late April.

While foreign tourists may busy themselves by maniacally snapping pictures of these subtly-scented blossoms, the locals take their time to appreciate the view. The Japanese indulge in the traditional practice of hanami, which is said to have started during the Nara Period (710–794). Friends and families alike gather under the cherry trees to have picnics and to simply relax.

Most hanami participants bring along large plastic sheets, usually a uniform blue, to spread out beneath the trees. Many carry their own picnic baskets laden with bento sets, flasks of hot ocha (green tea) and plenty of alcohol. In fact, we observe many picnickers breaking out in song over carefully poured cups of sake.

Cherry-blossom Avenue, Yanaka Cemetery

You can do hanami at night, or yozakura, too. Most parks are open at night during the sakura season; the cherry trees are stunningly lit up so folks may enjoy sipping their drinks and keep warm while watching the sakura.

At popular cherry blossom viewing spots, folks arrive early to snatch the best spots. By mid-morning, most would have marked their territories by spreading their picnic sheets and appointing one member to stand watch, sometimes for a whole day, before the rest of the party arrives after work.

 
For the latest 2014 cherry blossoms forecast including the dates of first and full blooms in various cities, check out http://www.jnto.go.jp/sakura/eng/index.php

 

UENO PARK: EAT, PRAY, BLOOM

So, what constitutes prime real estate for hanami aficionados? One the most famous destinations for sakura lovers, Ueno Park (officially Ueno Onshi Koen, or “Ueno Imperial Gift Park”) was originally a gift to the city of Tokyo by Emperor Taisho in 1924. The long rows of cherry trees, alternating between talcum-white someiyoshino and the gallant yamazakura (mountain cherry) that have inspired the chivalrous samurai arts of Bushido, present a glorious backdrop for springtime parties.

It’s early afternoon, a little after lunchtime, when we visit the park and already there is a crowd here. It’s decidedly mixed – there are young families, salarymen in their sombre suits, elegant old ladies in exquisite kimonos, teenagers in Harujuku gear with rainbow-coloured hair, and of course, tourists.

A mixed crowd at Ueno Park

Rainbow-coloured paper cranes at the Gojo-tenjin Shrine, Ueno Park

Some have come here to pray – one of the more popular destinations is the Kiyomizu Kannondo Temple, dedicated to the Japanese version of the Chinese Guan Yin (or the Goddess of Mercy). We notice a line of devotees in front of a large water trough where a steady stream of water pours from the jaws of a metal dragon watching over it.

A simple sign drawn in the manga style offers wordless instructions on how to wash one’s hands – left, then right, before drinking the sacred spring water. We wait our turn to wash our hands and drink from the ladle. The water is cold and clear. We are now cleansed and may offer our prayers too.

Ramen break, Ueno Park

Yakitori seller, Ueno Park

If you’re hungry, try some Japanese street food near the Benten-do Temple by the Shinobazu Pond. Favourites include yakitori (charcoal-grilled chicken pieces), and takoyaki (small balls of diced baby octopus fried in batter, then topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise and fishy katsuobushi shavings). We take all of this in – the first sakura of spring blooming above us; the deep chiming of temple bells; the delicious, greasy smoke of street fare – and can’t help but wonder if this is what Elizabeth Gilbert meant by “eat, pray, love.”

 
Ueno Park/Ueno Onshi Koen, Taito, Tokyo, Japan. The park is right next to Ueno Kensei Station or a five-minute walk from the Ueno Koen exit at JR Ueno Station (JR Yamanote Line, Ginza Line or Hibiya Line).

 

YANAKA CEMETERY: INK AND BRUSH

After the crowds at Ueno Park, the quiet neighbourhood of Yanaka is a welcome change. This is old Tokyo, a neighbourhood that still retains the traditional Shitamachi (“downtown”) feeling. The townhouses here are nearly historical artifacts themselves, designed in the machiya style and imbuing visitors with a charming sense of the past.

Yanaka is also the home to the renowned Yanaka Cemetery (Yanaka Reien). There are more than 7,000 graves here, the final resting place for many local commoners but also many famous personalities — the Meiji era novelists Soseki Natsume and Ogai Mori rest here, and also Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. All graveyards are venerated places, but this one comes with a redoubtable pedigree.

Picnics with the dearly departed

Here, the main street of the Yanaka Cemetery is canopied with huge and ancient cherry blossom trees, earning it the moniker of Cherry-blossom Avenue. Perhaps only in Japan would people have such great respect and ceremony for the dearly departed, and then proceed to have picnics and performances in the middle of a cemetery.

Artists also come here for inspiration. We come upon a live calligraphy performance under the trees. The artist paints barefoot on long rolls of parchment pressed simply against the pavement. His brushwork is impeccable and full of energy.

We discover the painter is actually Sosuke Kimura, an acclaimed Japanese calligrapher. He invites us to watch him write. No special VIP invitations to a high-end art gallery are needed. He is performing in public to show that art should be inclusive, that it should be open for everybody. This is street art at its best.

Sosuke Kimura, an acclaimed Japanese calligrapher

Japanese calligraphy performance under the trees, Yanaka Cemetery (Part 1)

Japanese calligraphy performance under the trees, Yanaka Cemetery (Part 2)

Kimura starts at the top of the parchment, body bent over and his fingers grasping only the head of the brush. The lines come from a battered book of poetry. His disciple helps him shift the pot of ink along as he progresses. From time to time, he sweeps dead leaves or cherry blossoms from the pages of the book of poetry he is referring to. Crowds gather, watching silently in appreciation.

When Kimura finishes, his audience erupts in applause, polite but unrestrained. We join in and thank him. His calligraphy is beautiful, and as fragile as the cherry blossoms that flower so briefly before disappearing till the next spring. With any luck, Kimura and the other artists will return too.

 
Yanaka Cemetery/Yanaka Reien, Yanaka 7-chome, Taito, Tokyo, Japan.The cemetery is a one-minute walk from JR Nippori Station (Yamanote line). Enter via the west exit.

 

SHINJUKU GYOEN: SPRINGTIME SNOWFALL

Third time’s the charm, they say, and our third hanami destination has that number in spades. Shinjuku Gyoen, once the samurai residence of the feudal Lord Naito during the Edo period, is today a natural sanctuary in the heart of the cosmopolitan Shinjuku and Shibuya districts. Tokyo is often pictured as the ultimate metropolis but we can’t help but marvel at how the Japanese always manages to balance modernity with Mother Nature.

You may enter the former imperial garden via the Sendagaya Gate, Okido Gate or Shinjuku Gate. Each entrance brings you along a different path, leading into beautiful ornamental gardens such as the French Formal Garden, English Landscape Garden and Japanese Traditional Garden.

Hanami parties, Shinjuku Gyoen

Singing in the park, Shinjuku Gyoen

There are even three major ponds in the park – the Lower Pond (Shimono-Ike), the Middle Pond (Nakano-Ike) and the Upper Pond (Kamino-Ike). Little wonder then that the Shinjuku Gyoen National Park is also our favourite of the three places for chasing cherry blossoms.

Of the 20,000 trees found here, about 1,500 are cherry trees. Some, like the shidarezakura or weeping cherry, flower earlier in the season while others are late bloomers; the kanzan cherry blossoms, for example, don’t appear till late April. This makes it one of the more forgiving places for sakura sighting as other sites may only have one variety of cherry trees and a briefer period for blossoms.

More so than other hanami hot spots, there isn’t only a row or two of cherry blossoms – it is more like a forest here. The gentlest of breezes may rain a shower of sakura petals, not unlike springtime snowfall, over your head. It’s utterly breathtaking.

Elegant ladies in kimonos, Shinjuku Gyoen

Sakura over a pond, Shinjuku Gyoen

We follow the example of other visitors and walk quietly in the garden, our tread softened by the petals that cover the trails. Very little conversation passes between us as we slow down to enjoy the view and the feeling of simply being here. We observe more elegant ladies in kimonos; we hear snatches of song in the air. Amateur painters and photographers wander around trying to capture the beauty of it all.

Take your time to linger. The moment is fleeting but the memories, we discover, last a good deal longer.

 
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, 11 Naito-cho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Open Tue–Sun 9am – 4:30pm; closed Mondays except during late March–late April and early November. Enter through the Shinjuku Gate (10-minute walk east from the south exit of JR Shinjuku Station or from Shinjukugyoenmae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line), Sendagaya Gate (five-minute walk from JR Sendagaya Station on the Chuo/Sobu Line) or Okido Gate (a short walk from Shinjukugyoenmae Station on the Marunouchi Subway Line).

 

FLEETING FLAVOURS

Sakura is surely a feast for the senses. Beyond viewing the cherry trees in full bloom or inhaling the light fragrance of the petals, you can even taste them! Both the flowers and leaves are edible. Traditionally the blossoms are pickled in umezu (plum vinegar) and salt. These are then used to make anpan, a sweet bun filled with red bean paste, and sakurayu (cherry blossom tea), made from infusing the pickled blossoms in hot water.

Fans of mochi (Japanese glutinous rice cakes) may enjoy sakuramochi made from the pickled leaves of the oshima cherry. There are even limited-edition sakura-flavoured Kit-Kats available during this period which makes for thoughtful if overly-sweet souvenirs.

Traditional Japanese tattoo art or irezumi enthusiasts will recognise further significance of cherry blossoms in tattoo designs. There is a beautiful irony about these ephemeral flowers being permanently etched onto skin; perhaps it’s a reminder that we, too, shall pass.

This sense of the fleeting nature of life is deeply meaningful for the Japanese, with its rich Buddhist symbolism of impermanence. The more transient these blossoms, the more beautiful they are, as with life.

Springtime snowfall

 



This story has been updated and adapted from my articles in The Malaysian Insider (March 6, 2012), IM Magazine (March/April 2013) and The Malay Mail (April 6, 2014).

Read more stories about Japan here.



Six

A celebration

It’s been one and a half months, maybe two, since you left for Africa. This has been the longest spent apart in the six years we’ve been together. Not easy, not after nearly every day spent in mundane routine that never seems to lose its magic. Blessed are the meek and mild; there is, truly, no greater joy than being thankful for what we have.

Today you’re flying home. In fact you’ve left Luanda last night. You’re wandering in Dubai International Airport now, waiting for the next leg of your journey to begin. I am waiting too. There is no hurry though, however excited we may be, for this journey is more than a flight or three years spent as an expatriate in Angola. This journey will take a lifetime; our lifetime shared and savoured.

Welcome home, baby.

Devil and I

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart.

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

and once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.
Wendell Berry, The Wild Rose

A joyful Sunday full of revelations

Googling banana bread recipes for my neighbourhood café, discovering Chinatown in Luanda, Yuna's ethereal vocals and a Mary Oliver poem

There’s a place I used to know
A seed I used to sow
Sometimes I want to go back
And give them all I have

Try to show some love
Yuna, Mermaid

I begin the day with a smile on my face. It’s Sunday; why wouldn’t I? Some stretching to warm my body up, followed by a few rounds of sun salutations. My joints are creaky and my mind admonishes me, Why have you abandoned your yoga practice for so many years already? But my heart is too full of joy to care. I’m moving from pose to pose now, now quite fluid yet, but I am moving.

Oh yes, I am moving.

Await Café

While I was sleeping, you were exploring your new city. I receive your messages; you’ve discovered a Chinatown in Luanda. Your pictures of your haul from the market — bottles of sesame oil and oyster sauce, bags of dried chillies — make me chuckle. Oh what treasures you’ve found!

I tell this to the friendly baristas at our neighbourhood café; they laugh and nod. They can’t wait for you to come back too, they tell me, with a twinkle in their eyes. They tell me they’re thinking of adding new items to their menu so I google a few recipes for them. Something tells me I’ll be a guinea pig soon for their attempts at banana bread and carrot cake. (My waistline protests but I shush it.)

The sunlight is so awesome after dreary weeks of haze. So amazing. I’m listening to Malaysian singer-songwriter Yuna crooning-whispering when I come across this poem:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Mary Oliver, The Journey

I am determined to be happy. I am thankful for every new day, every fresh opportunity to live fully and to love without reservations. There is no point in saving a smile for a special occasion or to hoard my time for a worthy project.

Every minute we are alive is special; everything we do is worthy.

Ain’t that the greatest thing ever?

 
Await Café
9-1-5, Jalan 3/109f, Taman Danau Desa, 58100 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Open daily 11am-8pm except Thursdays closed
Tel: +603-79710978
Web: https://www.facebook.com/AwaitCafeKualaLumpur‎