Celebrating Spring cherry blossoms in Japan
Petals fall. Float on the water beneath. A pink tinge covers the blue sky reflecting on the water. The pink cover shimmers, in the gentle breeze. It is spring, season of Sakura, the cherry blossom in Japan.
As the winter bids farewell, the blossoms usher in spring. Starting from the islands down south, spring gradually moves north over a few months, coloring the land pink as it moves. After the bitter cold months of winter in Japan, the arrival of spring is greeted with joy and gratitude. People across the nation celebrate Hanami – get togethers under the cherry trees to appreciate the beauty of nature, to exchange pleasantries. Food and drinks, chatter and laughter fill in the air. Families, friends, business colleagues arrange their Hanami parties. A carnival like joy d’ vivre fills in the ambience. Flocks of people in their best kimonos and yukata crowd the neighborhood spaces. Of Course never flouting the norms, never violating the boundaries of discipline. The cause must never be subjugated to the effect. It’s a celebration of nature, the bounties afforded to us by the supreme power. So the celebrations must obey, and pay due respect to his wishes. Prayers, waft of essence and the sound of the bell ring in from the temples.
But like all things in life, cherry blossoms too are a transient phenomenon. Here today, gone tomorrow leaving a cache of happy memories. The flowers bloom overnight, suddenly filling the barren branches with a trove of flowers. Then leave similarly one night, after the first light drizzle soaks the earth. This coming and going has not escaped the minds of the wise men of yore. Poets from the olden days when the capital was still in Nara, prior to Kyoto, wrote Haikus paying obeisance to this transient beauty of Sakura. A Haiku, in its brevity, innately resonates with the essence of Sakura – light pink, delicate, understated. Less told, more implied, most felt.
Haiku on Sakura (Source courtesy Issa Archive)
under every tree
a Buddha on display
Spring around Tokyo
Like the rest of Japan Tokyo too, the big city of teeming millions, kind of gives in to the charm. Famous Sakura viewing spots, such as Ueno park, Shinjuku Goen, Meguro river sides become crowded. Evenings are spent with near and dear one under the cherry trees incandescent in the yellow glow of hanging lanterns.
Have you read the poem by William Wordsworth that eulogized daffodils as the harbingers of spring? In a scenario not too far removed from the isles of England, the blossoming of Sakura in Japan is as much a cherished moment. The country follows the progress of weather front on TV and the web.
The Ueno lake and gardens happen to be the center of attraction for the sakura season in Tokyo. The waters of the lake take a pink hue with the petals falling in. Areas under the trees around come to life with bonhomie and laughter.
Asakusa area especially the Asakusa Sumida river side, comes close to Ueno in terms of the number of people celebrating Hanami. Asakusa is home to the largest Buddhist shrine, the Sensoji, and is the de facto torchbearer of traditional culture in Tokyo. The lanterns hung from the branches, the people in colorful traditional dress, it all takes one’s mind away from the daily grinds of a salaryman life and takes one back to the simple days of past. Hand drawn rickshaws ply on the roads, to nudge the memories, to shake the stifling citizenry into a soothing trance.
This experience of olden days resonates through the mantras and with the sound of the bell at Zojoji, the family temple of the Shoguns, as it welcomes spring. Next to Tokyo tower, the entire Shiba Koen area comes alive in unison with the pink and white theme of the cherry blossoms around.
It’s however a digression for just one week, maximum two. The bare branches of cherry trees suddenly wake up one morning full of flowers. The bloom signals the end of ills and beginning of hope. Japanese society, isolated in Pacific divided in a thousand islands, pounded by Tsunamis shaken by quakes, learned to cope with nature. People do not break into hopelessness when nature expresses its fury on mankind, neither it falls shy to celebrate when nature shows its kind side. Rather it has taken upon itself to celebrate in full vigor everything that nature offers. Communities break into dance and singing festas. A few glimpses are in here.
No wonder people over time have tried to extend this season, engineering nature. Japan is the land that invented Bonsais, miniature trees that are trees in their own right but designed by man. So it is in order that Sakuras of varieties that bloom early, live longer have been carefully grown. Nature gave company, with varieties that welcome spring, and ones that signal it is about to leave spreading across Japan. Named Somei Yoshino, and such others….
Quest for symbolism, of hope, of rejuvenation, though went farther. Sakuras of all varieties do one day go. So society embraced new symbols in plum and Wisteria. Plum has been made the usher. The early variety of cherry blossoms come holding hands of the bright pink plum. And the late variety of cherry blossoms pass its crown over to Wisteria. A lush pink that lives till May. And the celebration continues, in places around such as Kameido Tenjin shrine.
Once the wisterias dry out, spring finally bids goodbye, summer sets in. But the year rolls on inspired, Hanami season replaced by Hanabi season. Summer is synonymous with fireworks festivals – Hanabi. Natures colors get multiplied in a man-made sparkle of colors that cover the night skies around. We will talk about that in a later piece. Till then good bye and God bless. Happy Hanami