Friday, April 22, 2011

Gone with the Sakura

Starting approximately the week of Apr 4, Kyoto's famous cherry trees started to bloom. Called Sakura (桜 or 櫻) in Japanese, they are as much a symbol of Japan as sushi is. Since the time of the Heian-kyo, which is how the city of Kyoto was called in the early medieval, many poets and artists have tried to express the beauty of the Sakura on paper. I will be less poetic, and instead of writing a poem I will portray the beauty of the Sakura in the .jpg form at the end of this post. Let me first, however, explain a little more about these curious cherry trees.

It is really difficult to explain how much Kyoto changed during the first week of April. From a slightly grey, misty, cold old lady, the city transformed nearly instantaneously into a pink, warm, blooming beauty as the cherry blossoms popped out of their buds almost overnight. Literally, everything in the city became pink. Everywhere I rode the train, I could see pink cherry blossoms beautifying the landscape. Every shrine and every temple, every street, every school, every backyard, every mountain, both banks of the Kamo river, everything was pink.

Before and during the Sakura season, the weather forecasts included predictions of when the Sakura would start blooming in a particular region. Because Japan is a big country spread over a large vertical distance, the Sakura do not bloom in all parts at the same time. They first start blooming in the warm Okinawa, then in the central regions where Kyoto is, and then slowly make their way to the north of the country.

The day that the cherry trees started blooming in Kyoto, the mood in the city turned around. People of all ages and all occupations, be they university students, housewives, or salary men in their sixties, went out where the cherry trees were, engaging in an activity called Hanami, or "Looking at the Blossoms." When I heard this phrase for the first time, I thought that nothing could be more boring than staring at blooming trees; how wrong was I. Let me describe to you what Hanami is really about.

In my opinion, Hanami (花見), looking at the flowers, should be renamed to Hananomi (花飲み), or drinking under the flowers. Literally, crowds of people of all ages set up blue plastic tarts under the blooming trees at major shrines and temples, around the Kamo river, at the Imperial Palace, and other popular places, bringing lots of food and alcohol, and drinking until late in the night. Hundreds of food stalls emerged around the main cherry-viewing spots, selling everything from okonomiyaki, takoyaki, teriyaki, taiyaki, oden, sausages, and noodles, to sweets and alcohol. No one cared whether it was Saturday or Wednesday, and if they had to go to work tomorrow or not. Today the Sakura are here, and tomorrow they may not be. If the winds are strong or it it rains too much, the blossoms could fall down in a few minutes.

Their impermanence is the worst as well as the best thing about the Sakura. The worst thing about their impermanence is that their beauty does not last. The best thing about their impermanence is exactly the same; if the blossoms did last, no one would ever appreciate their beauty so much. This idea is deeply rooted in the minds of many Japanese, a philosophy called mono no aware, which literally means something like "the pathos of things." Everything is impermanent, everything will die, which is also what makes it beautiful. Literally, the blossoms disappeared as fast as they came. First, everything was grey. One day, every tree was pink. Three days later, the ground was pink as well, because the Sakura leaves started falling down. Another three days later, the show was close to being over. See you next year, Sakura. The Japanese know this very well and waste no time to see the Sakura trees in full bloom.

Companies sell special Sakura edition foods, which are often no different from the usual products except that they have a pink wrapping instead of their usual color. A good example are the special Sakura beer editions, which feature pink blossoms on the can but the beer inside tastes the same. Sakura themselves can also be used as a food. Pickled in salt, they are put into tea or used to decorate traditional Japanese sweets. The fact that they are pickled in salt, however, means that they only smell nice, but taste horrible. Pickling the Sakura is only a meager attempt to preserve these amazing blossoms which are gone before you even notice that they are there.

Appropriately enough, my time in Japan will be gone with the Sakura. As the last lonely pink leaves fall to the ground, my eight-month long stay in Kyoto will come to an end. Next Wednesday, I will be gone from the amazing place which the city of Kyoto is. The eight months here indeed felt like the life of a Sakura: beautiful, interesting, and very short. What did I learn, how did I change, and what will come next? Did I make the best out of the time here? I assume that the pages of this blog can tell you better than I. Before I leave for Prague, though, I will try to write one more post concerned with exactly the above questions.

At the beginning of the last month of her stay in Argentina, my friend Kayla wrote in her blog that she had thirty beautiful sunsets above Buenos Aires left to watch from her apartment house's balcony. She also said that she must do the best with these thirty days because they will never repeat. I will now go and do exactly that during my last week in Japan. See you on the other side.

A great example of Sakura alcoholic beverages . Orion beer, sold in Okinawa, even made a special commercial for its Sakura special edition cans. The beer tastes the same, but the can has cherry blossoms on it.  The music is actually Cojaco, the artist whom I met in Okinawa.

New friends that I made during one of my walks through the Imperial Palace. They were doing Hanami and asked me if I wanted to join. I did, and we have been hanging out ever since. The trees in the back are actually peach trees, and not cherries. They last longer, but are not considered to be as beautiful. The Chinese, on the other hand, cherish their longevity.

A little UWC reunion: my friend Minami from Pearson came to Kyoto and we met under the Sakura trees. It was lovely.

A night light up of Sakura in Maruyama Park, downtown Kyoto.

This is what Hanami is all about: drinking and eating under the trees. The signs advertise Oden (an indescribable but delicious food), and Soba and Udon (types of noodles).

A detail of Sakura.

The Philosopher's Path, Kyoto.

A scene at the Kamo River. Notice the birds as well as the Sakura on all four of the banks.

Weeping Cherries at the Nijo Castle, Kyoto.


  1. I see you are having fun in a big city like Tokyo. I have never been there but I did go to The Japanese garden in Argentina is a very nice place to visit (very similar to your pictures.) Most of its attractions have to do with vegetation, plants, different kinds of trees, flowers and fishes. Last year I was looking to rent apartments buenos aires in Palermo because I knew tourist places like the Japanese garden or the Buenos Aires Zoo were located in this neighborhood.
    I had the best time!