The best thing about teaching English in Japan is that you can always put local knowledge on tap under the guise of a lesson. It’s like a friendly interrogation. Come spring, I was pumping my students for the best cherry blossom viewing spots.
Everyone shared the same enthusiasm for the cherries lining a little nameless canal in Isawa.
I leaned in, arm on the table. “Where is this canal?”
“Take the main road. From the station. Turn left,” she informed me far too hesitantly. “It’s further.”
When everyone nodded emphatically I should have known I would never find it.
But when you get lost you find things. Once, after returning from an Aural Vampire (a Japanese dark synthpop band) concert in Richmond Virginia, I had put my GPS in pedestrian mode while in the city, then forgot to change the settings back for the drive home. I was deep into the amber fields of grain before I finally realized and corrected my mistake, but the damage had been done. I’d wasted an hour, and tacked on another two to my return trip. I was extremely frustrated, but then realized I was actually enjoying the scenery even more than that tight outfit the lead singer, Exo-Chika, had worn during the concert.
While lost, I stumbled upon a quaint little temple with its own beautiful weeping cherry, along with many more somei yoshino. The most common variety of cherry, somei yoshino, is a hybrid of two wild species named after the village where they were once widely cultivated. The oldest though, is the 2000 year old Jindaizakura, of the edohigan species, which was struck by lightning a few years ago and is only recently starting to recover after intensive care from Japan’s leading Arborists.
Still searching for the elusive canal, I came across a huddle of old ladies wrapping up a hanami party beside an overpass. Their, let’s say practical, choice of locations made me realize something. Wherever you are in Japan, there are always gorgeous cherries somewhere nearby. (Although sometimes it takes a little footwork, like in a Japanese Dairy’s, Chasing Cherry Blossoms.)
It’s why starting in February, Japanese enjoy a springtime addition to the weather forecast called the “cherry blossom front.” It follows the bloom of the cherries across the country from south to north, like a nationwide cloud front.
But sakura (cherry blossoms) don’t last long, and even during that time only a few days are at full bloom. To the ancient Japanese, this fleeting cycle represented life itself. Modern hanami parties though, are more often without this hint of existential evanescence. “Hana yori dango” means “dango, (a type of skewered rice cake) rather than flowers.” It takes a more practical view of the parties, where food and drink are preferred to appreciating aesthetics. The beer flows at hanami parties, which is why older Japanese are beginning to return to hanami in its very first incarnation, plum blossom viewing, to distance themselves from the drunk young people.
Though eventually upstaged by the striking cherry, Hanami began with plum blossoms. The pastime is no less enjoyable, though good plum blossom locations are harder to find. Since plum blossom season starts and ends just before cherry blossom season, there’s no reason not to enjoy both though. Just don’t upset the old folks with any shenanigans.
Hanami is a simple thing accessible to everyone, whether it’s a refined appreciation of beauty or an excuse to down some beer. It’s as deep as you prefer. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you might want to schedule it around the sakura. If you’re in Japan, well, odds are you’ve already seen some, but if not, you’ve got to check them out. Also, you should definitely try going at night to see the yozakura.
Question of the day: Do you know any good Hanami locations?