Come every March, Japan begins to thrum with the excitement of Sakura Season. It’s a beautiful time of year that has mild temperatures but most importantly brings the blooming of the Sakura or Cherry blossoms. Tree canopies of flowers ranging in hue from white and palest blush to vibrant fuchsia or even yellow.
Actually, the season usually starts in late February down south in Okinawa and slowly makes it way north to Hokkaido around May so depending on where you live or are planning to visit you can get an eye full from February to May. For us here in Yokosuka, we started seeing the blooms in late March.
Shortly after the first blooms, lanterns and lights begin to appear strung among the trees preparing for dusk and evening hanami. Hanami simply put, is blossom viewing. People pack up picnic style and head out to local parks everywhere and sit and enjoy the simple fleeting beauty of the blossoms with friends and family. Hanami is an anytime, all day kind of thing and consists of walking around or just sitting and relaxing. I’m a fan of hanami.
The tradition of hanami has been around for centuries and hanami parties date back to the 700s. Yes, seven, zero, zero. No “1” in front. For y’all over in the states, white folk wouldn’t be coming from Europe to the shores of the US for over double that time. Take a moment to let that concept sink in. Anyway, way back in the day sometime between 710 and 790, hanami included parties under plum blossoms and wisteria as well as sakura. Today some of the older generations still gather under plum blossoms rather than cherry as they tend to be a little less crowded and partyesque than the younger occasionally more boisterous crowds that the sakura draw.
Historically the sakura has had great significance to the Japanese culture. Their appearance signified the start of the rice planing season and some used them to foretell the years harvests. It’s short but wondrously beautiful life span was treated as a metaphor for life and was the central theme for countless poems throughout the eras. While the tradition of hanami gatherings started in the imperial court originally, it didn’t take long to funnel down through the various classes to the merchants and farmers. Today everyone can and does partake in some form of hanami.
With the Sakura season also comes copious offerings of specialty Sakura themed treats, drinks and memorabilia. If you ever wanted a cherry blossom tee shirt or parasol, now is your time for the most choices. If y you’d like to partake in a variety of sakura flavored candies and baked goods, there is no better time. Many stop in the local Starbucks and order up a seasonal Sakura flavored drink. I must warn you though, it’s an acquired taste; obviously floral, much like lavender or rose but, also reminiscent of… soap. Partake so you can say you did but, know you have a 50/50 shot of loving it or forcing your self to finish so it’s not money wasted.
About three weeks ago, the Sailor and I headed out to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo to have our own little hanami. We had originally planned to journey to Arakurayama Sengen Park for some epic pictures that would have included Mt. Fuji and the Chureito Pagoda. If you have ever seen a post card or poster with a 5 story red pagoda and a large snow capped mountain in the back surrounded by cherry trees in full pink bloom, than you’ve seen what I’m talking about. Alas, Arakurayama Sengen Park is a 3 hour train ride one way and when the morning dawned neither none of us were up for that kind of journey. I had a either an epic case of allergies or a wicked cold (I’m guessing a little of both) and the Sailor was prepping for surgery on his schnoz in less than 48 hours. So we opted for the quicker hour long train and subway jaunt to Tokyo.
The park was literally a 5 minute walk from the subway station. We were met with a long queue of people waiting to pay their 500¥ each for entrance to the Park. As usual, the line was organized and directed with flawless precision that the Japanese are known for and moved along at a nice constant and orderly fashion leaving the wait to be a tolerable 15 minutes or so. It was worth it. We were greeted by sprawling lawns surrounded by paved paths that meander around the grounds; under trees, around, ponds and passed pagodas. It was crowded and still lovely. Amidst the urban sprawl of Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen is a bit of green and pink beauty and a nice respite from the concrete and brick city. Hundreds of people lazily walked along the paths, groups of people of all ages and backgrounds lounged on blankets on the lawn; chatting, playing games, reading, napping and in one very specific case, dressed in victorianesque clothing while posing dolls in similar attire and taking pictures of them. No joke. We saw couples of every age holding hands or leaning into each other while sitting on benches quietly taking in the view. We even witnessed a proposal under the blooms with everyone that walked by stopping to offer sincere congratulations in more than one language. Even feeling high on cold medication yet still somehow mildly congested and achey, I couldn’t help but completely enjoy every moment with a silly smile constantly plastered on my face. I’d say we had a successful first Hanami in Japan.