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.

Filed under:  essays spring japan

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When I first heard about the cherry blossom watch, I did laugh - no one in the US tracks the changing of autumn leaves, for example. Maybe this is what the audience was doing...making an unsure reaction to something new? But my laugh was not because I thought it was stupid or hilarious. Just...interesting.

Now, my first hanami was hilarious and even my Japanese coworkers were cracking up. Instead of staking out a spot anywhere, they sent the underling to Morioka to get a branch off a cherry tree because none of ours had bloomed yet. So we had this nice hanami party, inside, with the branch stuck to the wall. At the appropriate time, we all looked at the cherry blossoms, which looked rather tired from their journey, had a good laugh, and then the usual drinking commenced.

Here in the US we "track" the changing of the leaves in fall, no? We should really celebrate that change, especially on the east coast where I hear it is particularly beautiful. But we don't take that time. Our loss. I love the changing of the seasons. Hmmm... maybe this fall I'll throw a party when our maple's leaves turn their glorious red. :)

I wanted to thank you for taking the time to help others understand a little about Japan. We really appreciate it at our house. My son still swears (after 2 years now) he wants to live in Japan someday (teaching English). :) He is only 10, so you just never know. But if nothing else your blog is helping us learn about another culture and that could never be bad. He's also trying new foods... and liking them!

Domo arigato gozaimas, Maki-san!

I did not laugh or think it stupidat all. On the contrary, it seemed a very reasonable thing to do. It is not much different from releasing weather baloons from different points in the country, or collecting samples. You watch BBC too. Is this any different from wildlife watch, spring watch, daffodil blossoming watch or various Gardners' World initiatives for nationwide seed trials?
What I find somewhat awkward is that your Swiss neighbours may not get why you would want to sit under a blossoming tree.
However, this is somewhat a typical case of how The Self and The Other interacts in perverse ways. By imagining (that includes all forms of tell-tale, misinformation, twisting, misunderstanding) that The Other laughs at you and belittles you in an area you feel confident about, you assure and approve of yourself. As superficial as that sounds, entire concept of politics depends on it(international, interpersonal,etc.) When you break the behaviour down, essentially, the Danish are not as different as they would like to believe, nor are the Japanese.One stakes out in front of a stadium, one stakes out for a concert, or a book store...some will stake out under the tree.

I also appreciate your efforts very much, thank you.

I don't think it's stupid. The US National Park Service tracks the cherry blossom trees in Washington DC as part of the information for the Cherry Blossom Festival. We track the changing of the leaves in the fall, with reports of peak weeks on the news (at least we do on the East Coast).

I think the only difference is that here in the States we haven't formalized this the way it is in Japan. If I could spend time today sitting under a cherry tree, celebrating the arrival of spring, I'd do it in a second! I have celebrated today by drinking some cherry blossom tea.

I learned about sakura-zensen while I was in college as a Japanese language minor, and I didn't feel it was odd at all. I think perhaps the reason that it's hard for, say, Americans to understand is because there is no universal marker of the coming of spring throughout the US-- the flora and fauna in the various regions is so different, and in places like Florida you don't really have such distinct seasons anyway.
Now I'm working for an Asian Studies department at a university, and the Japanese faculty just showed us how to celebrate ohanami. They sent out the most lowly of the TAs on a hunt for sakura trees. We ordered some obentou from a local sushi place and ate dinner outside. It was great!
I love your blog!

I don't think sakura zensen is stupid. I thought it was funny, when I first saw it on TV in japan, but only as I found all the weather forecasts funny with the cute little animated icons.

I did find, while living in Japan, the insistence that only Japan has 4 seasons to be a bit tiresome. I understand where they are coming from, though, and definitely have a much deeper understanding and appreciation for the seasons after living in Japan. There is something about all of the rituals and food associated with each seasonal change that really helps to delineate the year.

That said, I miss the cherry blossoms so much. It always seemed to me that for about 10 days, everyone in Tokyo was in a good mood.

But now I live in DC, one of the other great cherry blossom cities. I was out last weekend at the Tidal Basin, freezing my butt off, eating onigiri and drinking sake with friends.

Hats off to the Japanese and Ohanami!

When I moved to Japan in 1981, the transition wasn't nearly as bumpy as I had been expecting, which I continue to attribute to the fact that Japan and the American South have a lot of habits and attitudes in common.

One of those is tracking the sakura/dogwood blossoms. My hometown is famous for its dogwoods, and every year the meteorologists start reporting on the dogwood front in early february (they're meant to bloom in mid-April -- and they never do). I was under the impression that the leaf-changing season in New England was tracked with similar devotion, but I can't speak from personal experience.

I'm a gaijin who lived in Kyoto for two years, so my attitude might not be representative of other gaijin, but I do not think it strange at all to mark the turning of the seasons, or to eagerly await the sakura. Of course, I also come from a culture that celebrates the solstices and equinoxes, and I eagerly await my own celebration of the start of spring.

That said, many of my coworkers in Kyoto came from around the world -- we had German, French, Danish, Dutch, Indian, Russian, American, and British employees. And many of my European coworkers were very scornful of hanami, tsukimi, O-bon, Oshogatsu, etc. Pretty much the only seasonal festivals they valued were the summer matsuri, and only because living in Kyoto, that was the most likely time to gatch a glimpse of a maiko rushing from her car to her teahouse.

I don't know if this is a cultural difference between my culture and European culture, or if it was the nature of our work to attract men (yes, men, I was the only woman working in my group at NTT who was not an "office lady") who had no appreciation for these things.

I agree with the previous commenter about the similarities of season observance in the South. I too live in the home of the "Dogwood Arts Festival" and the blooming of the trees is much anticipated. I also think of traditional foods of each season, which are of course related to the foods traditionally available at that time. Each year there is a "ramp festival" in our region, where people gather to celebrate this onion-like plant. People in South Carolina in summer celebrate the peaches even more so than the Georgians do. I think of family gatherings centered around freshly picked watermelons.

I don't think it's stupid at all. It's a way of thinking that connects one to the land, and I find it interesting that the nation that seems to embrace technology and take and adapt elements of other cultures so readily maintains its ties to the land in such ways. I think we in the US in particular could learn a lot about maintaining our regional identities like this.

Many New England news broadcasts track the peak colors for the changing autumn leaves. They will follow the front and tell you what parts of New England are peak, near peak, or past peak.

In fact, there are even websites that do the tracking for you too. http://www.yankeefoliage.com/

I've lived in New England all my life and always remember the foliage as being something really important as it marks the harvest and the time to go out and get your pumpkins and apples, and spend time "leaf peeping."

I don't think it sound stupid because every culture is unique... and Chinese also counts the calender for Moon Viewing rituals, so Ohanami doesn't sound stupid for me. I'd like to go to Japan on Spring to see those beautiful cherry blossom but unfortunately i haven't got the chance to do so...

Maki-san, thanks for your articles! i like it very much ;)

I've heard in recent years that Canadians seem unusually obsessed with the weather. Indeed, living in a climate in which just about anything can happen does seem to keep people "on their toes". I know that many Canadians rejoice at finally being able to put away their winter coats and boots and return to t-shirt weather.

In the city, any way, we seem to mark the return of spring weather by having a drink with friends on a nearby pub-patio (which is impossible during the winter). It's our first chance to soak up some sun, so it's always welcome.

In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath describes (as her alterego) attending a dinner at the house of a very wealthy woman. Between courses the servants brought Plath and her host each a little dish of clear liquid with cherry blossoms in it, and Plath describes eating each pink petal and relishing the crisp, tart taste. As she finished eating she realized that her host was using the little bowl of liquid to daintily wash her hands, and that what she had in front of her was not soup but a finger-bowl.

The photograph of the sakura in the liquor reminded me how much I still want to eat cherry blossoms. When I was last in Yokohama I had a sakura cocktail, a combination of sakura liqueur and something else in a martini glass, with sodden cherry blossoms floating in it, and it was glorious.

ps I've watched the movement of spring on the weather maps on Japanese TV and I think it's absolutely perfect. I think in the Western world we too easily lose touch with what's happening right outside the window unless it means shoveling snow or wearing sunscreen.

This reminds me that sometimes when discussing hanami, I've heard Japanese people just give a direct translation such as "cherry blossom viewing" or "flower blossom viewing" with no further explanation. People who aren't already familiar with the custom are probably imagining something like sitting alone, staring at a tree for hours. In America people often spend time enjoying the fall foliage, so there's no reason the concept should be difficult to understand; Japanese people just need to explain the actual custom, and perhaps try to sell the audience on it a little bit more (don't immediately give up on explaining in the absence of a comparable custom, on the basis that Japanese customs must truly be incomprehensible to foreigners!).

In the case of the audience laughing, I wonder if the translation was poor and made the idea sound comical. Or perhaps, the audience simply laughed because the idea sounded whimsical or charming, and Ms. Sawara read an unintended meaning into their response.

Great post. You touched on several things that particularly struck a chord with me. Without over-generalizing, sometimes I feel some Japanese aren't entirely aware of some of the implications to what they say are. Then again, this can hardly be specific to Japan. I'm grateful for effective cultural liaisons like yourself.

I agree with commenter Caitlin that the laugh from the audience probably represented a reaction to something unexpected. The depth and breadth of time-honored appreciation for nature in Japanese culture is one of its many attractions to me. After--well, during actually--an intense busy spell, I'm finally going to make my way to hanami tomorrow. I hope you do decide to have o-hanami under the apple trees. Let us know how it goes if you do.

I've been reading all of your very thoughtful comments, and all I can say is...thank you for them :) (the bestest people read this blog, yeah!)

Hi Maki

Your websites are wonderful and opens my imagination to the culture and traditions of Japan. Having only been to Japan twice in my life, I dream of the day, I can actually live there during cherry blossom season and am surely open to living there through out the other seasons. Though, my other half would probably want to leave as soon as it starts to get cold.

Keep on doing what you are doing, its wonderful and so greatly appreciated Maki-san.


Although I have been a subscriber for a while now, I never really felt the need to comment on anything, except for now.

I really do like the way you depict your culture and your heritage. Coming from a european background myself, I can truly understand the differences in the cultures that we live and work with. And it isn't always easy, I know.

I found your site by chance, actually, because I became an avid Inuyasha fan, which grew into something completely different, although I still write fanfiction. I have always been fascinated by Japanese Culture, especially with all of the culinary differences, and your site is by far, one of my favorites.

Please keep up your good work.

And, truth be told, I just may use some of this very interesting information on one of my future stories, if you don't mind, that is.

Thank you.


P.S. If I am not mistaken, aren't congratulations in order? I think that I read somewhere down the line that you were expecting? I am happy for you.

hmm no i'm not expecting at all :)

I would love to go to an o-hanami! It sounds so fun :)
I also like the little illustration, it's so cute!

I grew up in southern California with 2 seasons: rain and summer. Then I went to Boston, Massachusetts for university. I have also lived in Yorkshire, England. The first time I lived in Japan, where we were in Okinawa--tropical weather. Now we are in northern Japan, but south of Hokkaido. This will be our second spring here, when it finally arrives. Anyway, the point is, since living here in Misawa, I can understand why the Japanese go crazy when the cherry blossoms come. The winters are so long and spring is still cold. Then the cherry blossoms arrive for 10 days, then all--flowers and spring months--is gone for summer. The next thing you know, it's July. I felt the same way in Boston and Yorkshire--waiting for the crocuses and tulips to sprout to let me know the cold is finally going to be over.

Anyway, we're still waiting for the cherry blossoms in our area (predicting early May). But when they're finally here, I'll be out there dragging my kids along to eat their picnic bento. :)

I grew up in Kansas, which definitely has four seasons. Then I lived in Houston for 20 years. Houston is sub-tropical and mostly has two seasons: Summer, which is hot and humid and has thunderstorms; and winter, which is maybe 8 weeks of chilly and rainy but the temperature rarely drops below freezing. Spring doesn't last long, but in early March is the Azalea Trail, where people pay to go look at azaleas at several locations (so if they have a problem with hanami, they're not paying attention). Fall is hard to notice because most of the trees are live oaks, and their leaves stay dark green all winter. In spring when the new leaves come out, the old ones fall off and turn brown -- they never go pretty colors (though the new bright green leaves are nice).

3 years ago I moved back to Kansas and I have really enjoyed having seasons again. There are no real celebrations, but I remember my first fall I was waiting outside for something and I enjoyed wearing a sweater and kicking through the ankle-deep leaves, which you never get to do in Houston. This year I enjoyed winter until March when winter seemed to be dragging on... and on... and on. I don't think we have a lot of cherry blossoms around here, though there are a couple of flowering trees near my school. I've been watching the crocuses come up though.

I just wanted to also say that I dont think that Sakura zenshin is stupid, I would love to be able to fllow the coming of spring through the blossoms. Where I live In Australia I dont think I have ever experineced 4 seasons I have expereince hot and warm/cool and even the cool isnt really cold ive never even seen snow so I dont even know what the cold is really like.

But I am not a fan of the cold so if I lived somewhere like Japan where it snowed/got very cold and that you knew once the cherry blossoms start to bloom that the warmer weather is on its way I would also watch it excitedly.

zensen not zenshin - sorry
my bad for not re-reading what I have typed.

I can see why some people might find the idea laughable, not because it is, just because they are narrow-minded people :) I remember reading a health article recently that was talking about the best foods to eat in order to obtain some nutrient or other, and it mentioning something along the lines of "other cultures obtaining their nutrients from things that we would find disgusting to eat, such as fish eggs".. ! I was actually a little offended, I mean it's fine to have an opinion and all, but I don't want to be lumped in as the same kind of person they were, and you can at least be respectful of other cultures, even if your food tastes are vastly different...

I have no idea why anyone would find the specific idea of ohanami laughable, though. Plenty of people go to the park and sit under a tree to have a picnic in warm weather, though as another commenter said, I think that the phrase "cherry blossom viewing" brings to mind strolling by the trees to stop and stare at each one like you would at exhibits in a museum...

Cherry trees lined the street that I grew up on in Vancouver, Canada and i never grew out of thinking how magical it is when they all blossom at once and those incredibly fragrant little pink petals rain down on you until the whole street is pink.

But I have to say that i never even considered that these little pieces of heaven were edible!!! It's almost spring, though sadly in Toronto, where I'm living now, there aren't as many cherry trees around, but i'm definitely marching myself down to the market in search of some edible blossoms as part of my own little tribute to spring this weekend!

i think the idea of zensen is far more magical (and scientific for that matter) than standing around waiting for a groundhog to come out of a hole to mark the change in seasons...

To mark the first anniversary of this article I'd just like to say that the cherry blossoms of April were spectacular in the french countryside this past weekend. By next week all the petals will have fallen and the trees will continue their seasonal changes until next year when the blossoms return as always. All the same, it was a shame that we didn't take a moment to dine on our gigot d'agneau under the shade of that flowering tree...

O-hanami comes organically from Shinto, the traditional Japanese religion, predating Buddhism, and Japanese have and maintain a closeness to nature that has not been seen in the West since the Celts,,, The sensibility that produced haiku by Samurai and poetry as a warrior's accomplishment is utterly beyond the contemporary gaijin's imagination. Western civilization has largely experienced nature as something to be feared and conquered, and the tradition of "Dogwoods" (I too grew up in the American South) and fall leaf-viewings are in no way comparable. The "Hanami feeling" has never been part of our culture. All cultures are 'unique' and therefor different, regardless of our apparent need to insist that "we are really all the same." Better that you go on thinking Japanese culture is inscrutable than to think these things (Dogwood and fall leaf watching) are similar. It is quite unlikely that an American sitting under the cherry blossoms is able to experience the spiritual side of O-Hanami. Always better to know you don't know than to make assumptions.