Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sakura, Sakura

Sakura in Japan is a big deal.

In English, we say “cherry blossom” for the flower, and “cherry” for the fruit. The fruit is the thing; the blossom is just how you get there. In Japanese, precedence goes the other way: the blossoms are sakura, and the cherries perhaps later produced are sakuranbo, the natural result of having sakura. But sakuranbo, I should mention, aren’t as big or juicy or sweet as the imported American big-ass cherry, or black cherry, or whatever.

First blooms, school driveway.
From Hanami 2011
But what makes the sakura so damn special? Why does it become the flavor of every consumable food and drink imaginable ‘ere springtime approacheth? Why does the weather start to carry bloom forecasts along with sun and rain? Japan loves the sakura for a number of reasons. One is the brevity of the blossoms: sakura blooms in an area for about one week before the petals start to drop. It’s kind of symbolic of the preciousness of youth and beauty, how shit fades really fast, and you gotta enjoy it while it’s there. I think the other reasons are that it signals the start of real spring. Sakura opens when the sun makes it warm enough, so normally, sakura time is open-windows, outside into the sunshine time.

From Hanami 2011

Last year, hanami season was right after I returned from spring break in warm sunny Okinawa. Last year, hanami season was cold as a bitch. We bundled up in coats and gloves and shivered in the dark outside Himeji-jo, snagging some good photos just before the castle went under tarps, and then hurried home to turn on heaters and crawl under blankets.

Himeji Castle hanami, 2010.
From Hanami

Hanami is supposed to be lying back on blankets, setting up BBQ pits on riverbanks, sipping sake in the warm sunshine (or in the evening, under lamplit trees). It’s supposed to be the way people enjoy the lovely warmth of spring.

From Hanami 2011

Last year, I didn’t really get into sakura season, partly because I returned from Okinawa and everything was in full bloom, and it’s only downhill from there. I was too busy with the new school year and post-vacay catchup to really go and enjoy them, plus there was the Cold of Winter-Ling’ring. I preferred, I found, the new-formed leaves of later spring, the robust appearance of the healthy living green that covered the hillsides after hanami-season was over.

Kagoshima, Yoshino Park
From 2011_04_02
But this year, it’s a little different. I spent spring break in Kagoshima, where at the time sakura was just blooming down there. Sakura bloom moves like a wave over Japan, starting down in Okinawa in like February, and moving up to Hokkaido by May. They’re blooming now around here, with the ones higher up in the mountains in full bloom maybe today, while the stuff closer to sea level was full-bloom about last weekend.

Center Ichinomiya
From Hanami 2011

Those gnarly, unimpressive trees draw the sap up from where they sent it to hide during the effing-cold of the winter months and their very first act is an explosive orgiastic excess of pale pink petals. The landscape is bare except for evergreens, the last of the plum blossoms, and then the ridiculous fervor of the sakura, branches nearly invisible beneath the blanket of blossoms.

From Hanami

They’re thick with the blooms, like cloud puffs of light pink. It goes well with the light blue of the sky, really. So this year, I like the sakura. I like looking out the window of the bus and seeing them like signatures across the mountainsides. I like the way they are just everywhere, their visual mating call resounding, each to each, as they line roads, riverbanks, fields. You don’t have to go to a festival or special place to ‘view’ them, because they’re along the driveway to work, and they’re along the river that the road follows north, and they’re in your neighbor’s yard.

And just as suddenly and madly as they bloom, they fade, petals fall like warm snow, get swept into eddies and canals, and dust the edges of paths.

From Hanami
From Hanami

Something else I like about sakura (this year) is the way that some of the trees are little and puny, some are like regular trees, and others are clearly masters of their respective areas. Last weekend, I spent Sunday riding the Himeji Riiide route with Illustrator JET to make sure we had that nailed flat (conscientious? you bet!), and I spent Saturday on a mini-roadtrip to Yabu with three other Shisonians. Our pilgrimage was to go see a sakura tree that is 1,000 years old.

You'd need scaffolding too, if you were a thousand.
From Hanami 2011
A thousand! This tree was around before.. before.. well, before lots of things! I love the idea of living things that are so old. They call it the Oya Daizakura (or is it O-zakura? I dunno) and it’s a monster of a tree, a huge sprawling thing, pretty in a sort of massive, oddly-shaped kind of way. The tree, sadly, was not in full bloom, being a bit higher up in elevation than the Himeji trees, but it was a great roadtrip and we packed a hell of a good picnic, and made several stops along the way there and back. The rules of the roadtrip were, each person in the car has to call for at least one stop (only one?) along the way there or back, at any place, be it combini for supplies, shrine that looks interesting, the dam that holds up the reservoir in Haga…

Hello picnic! We failed to bring utensils, so we ate the chicken salad by scooping it with bread or spinach leaves.
From Hanami 2011

On the path in Himeji, pre-PEPY-ride with the Illustrator.
From Hanami 2011

So overall, it was a good and exhausting weekend. I prefer to take my hanami on the road, because I feel like I see more, and I like the idea that I’m not just sitting, but moving through the picture. I biked from Himeji station to Taiyo Park and back again on a free rental bike (courtesy of Himeji tourism office) in flip-flops, while the riverbanks below the bike path played host to a hundred blossom-gazers and  their kids wading in the water and their uncles grilling on the BBQ pit. The smells were intoxicating. “It’s like Memorial Day weekend,” I observed to the Illustrator, “only not so damn hot out.”

 Click on any of the above photos to go to the full albums, including gratuitous overphotography of blossoms, and of the thousand-year sakura, and other spring things.

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