Japanese euphoric as cherry blossoms bloom

February 18th, 2009 - 10:24 am ICT by IANS  

Tokyo, Feb 18 (DPA) They are as soft as silk, no larger than half a thumb, and conquer Japanese hearts every spring: cherry blossoms, known in Japan as “sakura”.

Anticipation starts building across the country in February. When the first buds open in the south-west, national euphoria breaks out. Newspapers follow the north-easterly advance of the flower front until millions upon millions of the delicate blossoms adorn the Japanese archipelago.

There are daily sakura reports on television. Viewers send in photographs of the most beautiful cherry blossoms in their area which the presenters greet with oohs and aahs. Professional chefs and ordinary housewives demonstrate how to fill sushi cleverly so that a cross section will show the image of a cherry tree.

The fuss may seem a bit over the top to foreigners. How can a natural, annual event stir such enthusiasm in the normally so reserved Japanese?

To understand, you need only to witness the spectacle, unique in the world, once. The blooming of Japan’s ornamental cherry trees is enchanting and of breathtaking beauty.

Even Tokyo, which generally makes a rather grey impression, suddenly turns light pink. Cherry blossoms appear all over the city: on isolated trees, in sun-starved urban canyons thick with automobile exhaust, and they transform parks into dream worlds of pink.

An especially beautiful spot is Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, where cherry trees shaped like weeping willows droop majestically over the moats. The trees are filled with such an incredible number of blossoms that from a distance they look like fluffy snowballs or part of an impressionist style painting.

Admiring cherry blossoms is such a venerable tradition in Japan that the Japanese have a special word for it: “hanami”, which literally means “flower viewing”.

Viewing does not always proceed quietly, however. The parks, particularly in the evening, are the scenes of boisterous hanami parties as students, families and workers congregate over Japanese snacks and plenty of sake.

In the mornings, young men go to places like Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park or the area near Yasukuni Shrine to claim the best spots under the cherry trees and mark them with bright blue plastic sheets.

Around midday you can see the “guards” dozing alone in the shade. By evening, when the trees are illuminated, all the people are sitting so close to one another on thousands of sheets that the parks are nearly impassable.

Timing a visit to Japan to see the cherry blossoms is a question of luck to a degree. The blooming of the trees, beginning in the south-west and moving north-east, generally starts in Tokyo in late March. A lot depends on the weather, however. If the preceding weeks were mild, the first blossoms often appear in the capital earlier.

It usually takes about a week before the trees are in full bloom, and then the first blossoms begin to fall and cover the streets with a soft carpet.

Tourists, who miss hanami in Tokyo, can travel to Kyoto where the cherry blossoms generally come out several days later. There, as in Tokyo, vendors scurry to set up their stands in the parks as soon as the first buds open, and more young men with their trademark blue plastic sheets stake claims for picnic spots under cherry trees.

A stroll along the Path of Philosophy, where philosophy Ikutaro Nishida, a professor, used to walk, is enchanting.

The cherry trees in Kyoto, like those in Tokyo, are not confined to a single area. There too, different varieties have been planted across the city to the delight of the inhabitants in the spring.

Throngs of people take photographs of the massive cherry trees in the park surrounding Kyoto’s Imperial Palace, former residence of Japan’s imperial family. Children sit under cherry trees in the tranquil inner courtyard of the Kyoto International Manga Museum, where they read adventures starring their comic-book heroes.

And on both banks of the Kamo River, which flows through the middle of Kyoto, hanami enthusiasts set up their camps before twilight.

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