Friday, 9 April 2010

no sakura, no spring

My personal report on sakura (cherry blossoms). This weekend, it was chilly, cloudy and patchy-rainy... Tokyo was situated a bit miserable in weather, but sakura was finally in full bloom. Hooraaay!!!

In Japan, life starts in April; schools, companies, services and systems, all are renewed at this time of year. As the Japanese Met Office issues a formal statement for the first opening of sakura blossoms, the whole nation craves for sakura to flower as a sign of “new” and “promising”.

On the photo is a sakura view in “Aoyama-bochi” regarded as one of the best “hanami” (sakura-watching, or “o-hanami”, more politely) spots in the heart of the capital. The place is a huge cemetery on its own managed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the atmosphere is 24/7 civilised with less boozers. It may sound spooky to imagine hundreds of sakura trees running alongside roads across the grave complex. Stepping in the sacred boundary, however, you’ll find to walk through the pale-pink flowery tunnel is just a heavenly experience. Aah, it is where the dead is sleeping in peace, so that’s “heaven”, no less!

To be precise, “sakura” is a generic term for a whole variety of cherry trees, but generally referred to as “Somei-Yoshino”, the most popular variety rooted throughout the Japanese islands. Its peak-bloom period lasts as short as a week, or less than that due to the seasonal wind and rain. Please, please excuse us for being ridiculously fussy not to miss out the momentary glace.

Not prioritising the “quantity” of sakura blossoms, you can enjoy hanami everywhere in Japan: gardens, squares, playgrounds, pavements, riverbanks, et al. Plus, many TV adverts are switched to their sakura version too. My favourite is the one for “Iyemon” green tea bottle produced by a Japanese beverage giant, “Suntory”. Since 2004, this advert has been a series of daily scenes happening around Iyemon, who is a green tea brewer living in Kyoto with his wife hundreds of years ago. Here’s the 30-second piece to be worth a look:

And spring has come on sweets, of course. Japanese traditionally eats confectionery such as “sakura-mochi” (rice cake and sweet bean paste wrapped in a sakura leaf). To flavour, salted sakura flowers or preserved leaves are mixed with the sweet dough. It’s good that the family of sakura sweets is extending with a wide range from pastry, through cake and biscuit to ice cream. On the other hand, the second truth is it’s not necessarily admired by all of us because of the incense-ish taste. I asked my friend who was an excellent cook for a seasonal pudding. The result she made is a fake sakura roll substituting cherry fruits. Fabulous! (.. no photo, sorry. My old camera got unwell.)

Now the height of sakura is almost ending in Tokyo, its front is heading northwards. Spring comes after sakura, or sakura deserves spring itself.... I’ve come up with an idea; sakura is “umami” of Japanese culture, the unique beauty nurtured by our deep, deep terroir.
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