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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).