Japan’s tradition of welcoming spring that dates back to the 12th century is still going strong. It is arguably also the best time to meet and mingle with Japanese people, as Julian Ryal found out.
For a small and delicate flower, the cherry blossom is very big in Japan. After a long grey winter, the blooming of these pale pink flowers that herald the arrival of spring is eagerly anticipated across the nation.
In the weeks before the blossom’s bloom, companies’ portable karaoke machines are dusted off and new recruits are instructed on the importance of reserving the best spot for the company’s annual “hanami” revelries – a ritual that can trace its roots back to the samurai of the 12th century Kamakura period.
Back then, the elite imperial courtiers paused to appreciate the delicate pink cherry blossoms known as sakura before indulging in picnics and poetry sessions beneath the blooms.
A millennium later and the flowers that inspired a thousand haiku are no less revered in modern-day Japan. Hanami literally translates as “flower viewing” and refers to flower appreciation picnics under the blooms. University friends, school groups, neighbourhood associations and families all prepare picnics, drinks and the ubiquitous blue tarpaulin to lay out beneath the elegant pink flowers.
I always find this as the best time to be in Japan. As well as the natural beauty of spring here, the average Japanese, typically retiring and shy to the point of muteness often out of fear that a verbal faux pas will offend and cause personal loss of face, is more relaxed.
During cherry blossom season, social conventions are forgotten and a passer-by is likely to receive a mildly inebriated invitation to join a group’s revelries. From personal experience, I highly recommend you never pass up one of these opportunities. And don’t worry if the language is a barrier; the alcohol and general sense of bonhomie will smooth pretty much every situation.
Few things are as quintessentially Japanese as cherry blossom – these flowers are up there with Mount Fuji and geisha as indisputable motifs of the nation. Indeed, the progress of the opening of the blooms is followed with near-religious zeal. Newspapers and television news programmes carefully chart the northwards advance of the arrival of the blooms on maps, with commentators expounding on the significance of the early or late arrival of the blossoms.
The first to bloom will be the “somei yoshino” variety, which is so pale that it is almost white, followed by the “shidarezakura” and finally the deeper pink of the “yaezakura”.
For the first two weeks of April – if the weather is kind and the trees can retain their flowers – several of the biggest public parks in and around Tokyo, plus the grounds of shrines and even graveyards, will be the scenes of large-scale over-indulgence that ushers out the winter and welcomes the new business and school years.
And then, when the last flower has gone, Japan goes back to business-as-usual. The public letting down of hair is as brief as the passage of the cherry blossoms themselves.
This feature first appeared at http://www.dw.com