Of cherry blossoms, ohanami and Japanese culture

It may surprise you to read this, but I do not actually miss living in Japan that much generally, except for my family and the food. My home territory there is the greater Tokyo area, and while Tokyo is a great metropolis, it's also unbearably congested and you are living on top of other people all the time. To borrow a term used for another place in the world, generally speaking it's a nice place to visit, but I'm not sure (given a choice) that I'd want to live there. But there are certain times of the year when I do wish I were there, and right now is one of them. It's cherry blossom time.

ohanami-illus.jpgCherry blossom trees are so ubiquitous all throughout Japan, that they are used as an official measure of the changing of seasons. There is something called the sakura zensen (桜前線) or the cherry blossom front, which tracks the blossoming time of cherry trees throughout the country. (It's so official that it even appears in elementary school geography books along with other weather maps.)

One thing that Japanese people repeat all the time is that Japan is unique because it has four distinct seasons. The implication is that no other place on earth does! This isn't quite true of course, but I do think that the Japanese culture has a deep appreciation for the changes of the seasons. One of these appreciative rituals is o-hanami or hanami (お花見). Groups of people congregate on mats under the most picturesque clumps of cherry blossom trees with bento lunches and have a good old party. A lot of sake is usually involved. Since certain places in Tokyo are so popular for o-hanami gatherings, it is traditionally the job of the lowliest grunt in the office to go out early in the morning to the place where his bosses want to party later on that evening with a mat and stake out a choice spot under the trees. He'd then have to sit there all day.

Families go out for o-hanami too, sans the sake usually, though there might be a small bottle or two (or beer) for Dad. Mom would wake up early to make lots and lots of onigiri, and the whole family sets off in their car or on the train to appreciate the blossoms.

(The illustration is by Melbourne artist and designer Andrea Innocent. Her web site is called Otoshimono and it's filled with Japanophilia. See the original full size illustration on CalorieLab.)

Eating cherry blossoms and leaves

sakuranohanashiozuke.jpgThe trees that produce those beautiful pink flowers are different from the ones that produce cherries, but in Japan parts of the flowering tree are still eaten. The leaves are salted and wrapped around a mochi that is dyed a pale pink filled with _an_; this sweet is called sakuramochi. This is one of my favorite wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) because the subtle salty-sourness of the pickled cherry leaves counteracts the sweetness of the an nicely. The flowers themselves are eaten too, salted and pickled in shiroume-su, the clear vinegar produced when making umeboshi that hasn't been colored by red shiso leaves. Floating one or two of these preserved blossoms in a bowl of clear soup or tea is really nice, adding that little salty-sourness again.

Around here it's still rather cold, but in a couple of weeks the apple trees in our village should be blooming. I wonder what the neighbors, human and bovine, will think if we had a o-hanami party in the fields...

The cherry blossom front lost in translation

Speaking of the cherry blossom front (sakura zensen) brought back memories of an odd experience I had many years ago.

In the late '80s to early '90s there was a revival boom of tanka, a traditional form of Japanese poetry that predates the haiku form by centuries. The instigator for this boom was an author and poet called Machi Tawara, whose book of modern tanka called Sarada Kinenbi (Salad Anniversary, サラダ記念日), became a runaway bestseller. (There's a good analysis of her work and impact on her official English web site.)

One day, Ms. Tawara was engaged to speak at the Japan Club in New York, together with another author whose name I don't remember anymore. My mother was a big fan of Sarada kinenbi, and so she dragged me there to hear this bestselling author who wrote such beautiful poems talk about her work. The audience there was almost all Japanese.

I don't remember most of what Ms. Tawara talked about that day, except for one thing. She was describing how she had given a similar talk on Denmark, to a Danish audience. She said that she had described the sakura zensen, and how Japanese people tracked the arrival of spring with it as the front creeped up day by day from south to north. She said her Danish audience laughed at this, and said it sounded stupid, and that she realized that it was a very Japanese way of thinking that was not understandable by gaijin-san (foreigners).

Now I ask you, if you are a non-Japanese person reading this, do you have a hard time understanding the sakura-zensen? Does it sound stupid to you? I'm guessing it doesn't at all. Every culture around the world appreciates the changing of the seasons, and have different traditions that mark them. I highly doubt that Danish people are any different. And I really doubt that that Danish audience said it was stupid. There must have been a severe breakdown in communication there somewhere - either a bad interpreter, or just that Ms. Tawara totally got it wrong. But the thing is she chose to interpret the situation the way she did.

I wasn't a fan of hers when I heard this (I hadn't read Sarada kinenbi yet), but my mother the big fan felt stunned at the shiya no semasa (the narrow view). It changed her opinion of the author so much that she stopped being a fan. Before that, she used to quote the tanka in Sarada kinenbi to anyone who would listen all the time. (A number of the New York-residing Japanese people who were there agreed with her, and the reviews in the local expat papers were pretty scathing, if I recall correctly.)

Anyway, the point of telling this story is that oddly enough, I think it was one of the defining moments in my life. It made me realize that one of the things I wanted to do was to give a real, living and informed (as much as possible) 'translation' of Japanese culture to people who weren't Japanese, and vice versa. It's one of the many motivations behind this blog and the others I run. For nihonjin (Japanese person), living solely in Japan (or in any single place) is like being in a protected, comfortable cocoon to a great extent, even in this internet age. Living outside of it is like being dunked in freezing cold water. It gives you a shock, but also opens your eyes to both sides of the divide.

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