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I really wish I could be in Japan right now.
This is a very special time of year; as March turns gradually warmer, a wave of blossom sweeps from the south of Japan, across the mainland, finally blooming in the north island of Hokkaido around April/May time.
If you haven’t seen the blushing cherry blossom floating like ethereal clouds in Japan’s narrow streets, glittering business districts or over the forested mountains, put it on your bucket list now. It is truly a sight to make your heart sing.
As the blossom unfurls in each district, people organise ‘hanami’ (flower-viewing) parties in the parks. They take picnics and blankets and sit under the branches, eating, singing and – in the case of the office parties – getting inebriated, sometimes late into the night.
Office parties are particularly comical to watch, for some reason; all those suited, soberly dressed men and women finally letting their hair down. I’ve heard that the boss will send out the office lackey (the youngest or most junior worker) with a big plastic tarpaulin at the crack of dawn, to reserve a space in the park for when the rest of the staff are ready to party – HOURS later. Sure enough, I saw lots of solitary young stooges, sitting in the centre of a huge blanket in the park, sometimes under an umbrella if the weather was unkind.
Shops and restaurants everywhere go crazy with ‘sakura’ (cherry blossom) themed foods.
Traditionally people eat ‘sakura mochi’ a sticky rice cake, filled with sweet red bean paste, and folded into a pickled cherry leaf. It sounds bizarre, but the intense sweetness of the bean paste, contrasting with the fragrant sourness of the pickled leaf, combined with the inimitable texture of the chewy, dense rice dough is utterly enchanting.
‘Hanami dango’ (blossom-viewing dumplings) are also popular – cute little pastel-coloured balls of pounded rice mochi threaded onto wooden skewers; festively bright and very portable. This is the only time you see Japanese people eating openly on the streets. Usually, eating in public is a bit of a no-no.
Some bright spark created a new type of dessert called ‘mizu shingen mochi’ (raindrop cake), and then trapped a single cherry blossom in its transparent centre. Apparently, everyone’s going wild for them. I think they look like breast implants… but don’t let that stop you! I’ll even include a link below if you fancy making a raindrop cake yourself.
Even fast food outlets will have a limited edition ‘sakura’ themed offering – from McDonald’s plum powdered fries, to Starbucks’s sakura frappe; from cherry blossom flavoured Asahi beer, to a resplendently pink sakura doughnut at Mr Donut.
The blossom viewing is so revered that there is even a 'Cherry Blossom Forecast' on news programmes, along with the more standard weather forecast.
A couple of years ago, I undertook a slightly terrifying journey to Japan with both kids, on my own.
Having mistakenly bought plane tickets that required an hour’s car journey from one Milan airport to another during the stopover, I was mightily nervous about the logistics of managing all our luggage, two children and driving through Milan traffic in a tiny 4 hour window.
Everything worked out well, however, and the pay-off for the stress of travelling was the magnificent state of the Tokyo cherry blossom when we arrived. Although I’d been to Japan many times before, I don’t think I’d ever seen the blossom during 'mankai' - its zenith.
We took several trips to Ueno Park, which was absolutely crammed with people (all behaving immaculately, of course), and lined with stalls selling delicious street food like takoyaki (kind of like a Yorkshire pudding ball stuffed with octopus), grilled chicken, taiyaki (a pastry with various sweet fillings, shaped like a fish) and fried noodles.
We went on some wonderful day trips – up Mount Takao, to Ueno zoo, Tsukiji Fish Market and Kappabashi (a street in Tokyo devoted to catering goods and wax food models), but one of my favourites was a trip with my mother to Shinjuku Gyoen – a fabulous garden in the heart of Tokyo.
The blossom was unspeakably lovely, somehow more poignant for its backdrop of skyscrapers. Some things are so beautiful that they never leave you – they bring a lightness that you can always recall to gladden your soul. Our wander through those sunny, aromatic gardens was one of those precious moments that I am now thankful for.
The reason cherry blossom viewing is such an important part of Japanese culture isn’t even due to its lush beauty.
It’s because the beauty is so ephemeral. It’s the heartache that comes with the falling ‘hanafubuki’ (blossom snow storm) that resonates with the Japanese.
I think the Japanese people are collectively quite a melancholy race at their core. Their merchandise may be brightly coloured, their TV shows eye-poppingly cheesy, their entertainment extrovert and crazy; but deep down, the overriding spirit of the Japanese is rooted in nostalgia, pathos and sentiment.
The idea of celebrating a blossom because its life is so fleeting is, I think, intrinsically Eastern. The instant of sorrow as one stands under the falling petals, the flowers already dying, is the one perfect moment – the representation of our lives – short, but joyful; brief but bright – like a light that shines with intensity before it goes out. We will all be forgotten one day, but we are appreciated while we are here.
‘Maybe the Japanese just like a good p*ss up as much as the next person,’ I hear you say.
Well, maybe, but the Japanese don’t let themselves relax very often, and this is one of the few times the appreciation of nature takes priority over office hours and duty.
Either way, I yearn to be there again.