Holy Sakura, Batman: It’s Cherry Blossom Season!


Hello again! Once again my post is waaaay behind schedule. I’ve had almost nothing to do at work for the past few weeks, but somehow I’ve found that it’s hardest to get work done when I have more free time. I also feel more tired and less enthusiastic about my job when there’s nothing to do, so I’m very excited for classes to start back up after exams! If you’re wondering why there’s a long break for me in the middle of spring, it’s because the Japanese school schedule is pretty different from what we use in America. The school year actually starts in April and ends in March, so my school has just started a new year, and we’re already at midterms. Actually, when I told them that my sister was graduating last week the other teachers were a bit surprised… It’s a very different system.

If you’ve ever watched Japanese TV or anime you might have noticed that there’s a particular event related to the start of a new school year, or graduation, and that’s sakura (cherry blossoms). Every year the sakura bloom in spring, and the whole country goes nuts. There’s a national sakura forecast to predict when they will bloom in each part of the country, a litany of sakura-themed/flavored items you can buy, and of course tons of “hanami” parties to go to. Hanami literally means “flower viewing,” and it’s exactly what it sounds like. On weekends and in the evenings friends, family or coworkers gather in a park to sit under the sakura and eat a picnic or have a barbecue. Japan’s lack of open container/public drinking laws means alcohol is usually involved, and I’ve frequently heard the whole setup described as “getting drunk in a park season” by fellow foreigners. It’s all good fun.

At night the parks are often lit up specially for the sakura, and the atmosphere just can’t be beat. The only trick is, the sakura only bloom for a short time, a few days or a week. So everyone tries their best to get out and see them, which can lead to very crowded parks. But my friends took me to a local spot with far fewer people than the “famous” park farther away, and we managed to find a clear spot to enjoy the flowers in peace and eat my friend’s amazing homemade burritos. Not exactly traditional, but certainly delicious.

I spent almost every evening for a week hanging out in a park, and it was great. But the really fun thing about cherry blossoms is that they’re everywhere. Driving around town I noticed that all of the trees I’d previously thought might be dead were in fact sakura, and for that one week they were gorgeous. Sadly that is the downside of sakura – they’ve pretty much been bred so that they have an abundance of flowers and very few leaves, but everything falls after a week and the trees spend most of the year looking dead. But that’s also part of the Japanese aesthetic appeal. The idea of “aware” (pronounced phonetically, ah-wa-rae), translated sometimes as “fleeting beauty” is epitomized by sakura. It’s hard to describe exactly, but it sort of means that  something is more beautiful because we know it’s temporary, and it is at its most beautiful as it disappears. In the case of sakura, this means the falling petals, which look a bit like snow if you catch a nice gust of wind. I remember studying this idea in my Japanese aesthetics course in college, but I feel like I understand it much better after having embraced the Japanese sakura fever.

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I think this is the face of “Sakura Fever” (though technically those aren’t all sakura)

A more local tradition that I was lucky enough to see this Sakura season was the Miyazaki Jingu Sakura Yabusame. Yabusame is a type of event that’s popular in my part of Kyushu. It’s essentially an archery demonstration on horseback. I’d been to one before in Kagoshima, where they trained a junior high student to race his horse down a track and shoot at three targets. The poor kid fell every time.  But at the Miyazaki Yabusame nobody fell, and in fact there were probably about 10 archers of varying ages. They raced their horses down a track lined with cherry blossom trees, which in any other year would have been dropping petals as they raced down the track, but this year they were a bit sparse. Sadly I don’t think I’ll get another shot at this particular event, since it is usually held on a weekday, and this year the calendar just happened to line up so that it was on a Sunday. Seeing everyone in their Yabusame costumes was really cool, and of course the skill involved was amazing. I also loved the people watching.

But now the sakura have all fallen. The bright pink sakura flavored pepsi is gone from stores, the students are back in school, and people have stopped visiting the parks at night. I was told this year was a bit of a sad showing for sakura due to the strange weather we’ve had (an unusually mild winter), but I thought it was lovely. I’m so glad I’ll have another shot at it next year.

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Gazing at the Cosmos

A gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Miyazaki
A gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Miyazaki

Summer and Autumn are the seasons for festivals in Japan, so I’ve been trying to attend as many as possible before the winter cold sets in. According to my friends who’ve been here for a while, once December hits there’s suddenly no events to be found, so it’s best to soak it all up now before it’s too late.

Cosmos fields at the Ikoma Plateau
Cosmos fields at the Ikoma Plateau

This past weekend I went out with a few friends for a day of cosmos viewing – cosmos being a type of flower.

Yellow cosmos
Yellow cosmos

We drove about an hour to the Ikoma Plateau, where a field had been planted with cosmos flowers. This is pretty common in Japan – seasonal plants are a major draw, and seasons in general are a big deal here. The best example of this is cherry blossoms, which mark the beginning of spring (or end of winter, depending on which part of Japan you’re in). People often go out and “hanami” or look at flowers, and maybe have a picnic or a drink under the trees. The same sort of goes for other seasonal plants, such as the sunflowers I saw a while back, and the momiji (Japanese maples) which will soon be changing colors, and thus drawing massive crowds.

Cosmos fields and walking paths
Cosmos fields and walking paths

For this particular event, a field was covered in cosmos of varying colors, and for a small fee you could walk through the fields and take photos or just enjoy the scenery. There was also a small stage where musicians played background music and a few tents with food and drinks.

Awesome photo by Megan!
Awesome photo by Megan!

There weren’t too many people, which was really nice, especially since my friends went there specifically to take photos.

Goofing around with Amber, my neighbor. Photo by Megan
Goofing around with Amber, my neighbor. Photo by Megan

After strolling through the fields we stopped by the food tents for a snack, then drove another hour to Kokubu, a beach town in neighboring Kagoshima prefecture. The draw for the evening was a festival advertising 6,000 fireworks, which we could watch from the beach.

Goodbye cosmos! On to the fireworks
Goodbye cosmos! On to the fireworks

One thing about Japan – people here love fireworks. I mean really love them. In the summer you can’t go anywhere on a weekend night and not find at least a few of them, usually as part of a festival. I’m not usually a big fan of fireworks, but this show in particular was pretty amazing. There were just so many of them! And on top of the fireworks, there were also lasers, and the whole show was set to music. The show went on for an hour and the finale lit the sky up with hundreds of gold sparkles. My standards for fireworks have just gone way up!

All and all, it was a pretty good day.