|It’s early spring in Japan. The television weatherman stands before a map of the country crossed by familiar undulating lines. But these aren’t isobars delineating high and low pressure systems, and they don’t measure temperatures either.|
The lines delineate the sakura zensen, the cherry blossom front. On each line is the date when cherry blossoms there will peak. The dates start in late March in Okinawa and Kyushu in the south and advance steadily up the archipelago to Hokkaido in late April.
Japanese watch the sakura zensen with the same fervent anticipation with which Indians await the monsoon. Once the dates are announced people prepare with the same intensity people in the northern hemisphere prepare for a major blizzard. At times cherry petals swirling in spring breezes do resemble a blizzard. It’s hard to imagine the hold cherry blossom time has on the Japanese. Once you see a hillside covered in delicate white-pink cherry trees in full blossom, though, you’ll understand.
Under the trees
Soup, fish salad, and everywhere
In 1690 master haiku poet Basho wrote that, but it could just as easily have been penned today. Japanese still celebrate cherry blossom season as they did then, with joyous hanami — flower-viewing parties held under the trees. Hanami are a national phenomenon. Everyone, from the smallest schoolchild to the president of the largest corporation, attends at least one.
As the sakura zensen advances company sections hold hanami party organizational meetings. Municipal crews prepare parks for the onslaught (and organize their hanami party). School children snip thousands of paper cherry blossoms (as teachers organize school hanami parties). Friends gather at bars (to organize hanami parties). In fact, the Japanese fixation on meetings may originate in the need to organize hanami parties, but that’s another story.
Hanami aren’t gentle social gatherings with quiet “ohhs” and “ahhs” as blossoms float down. They tend to be no-holds-barred bashes. Eyes seem more fixed on the bottom of the beer or sake glass than the ethereal blossoms overhead.
There’s a reason for that, based in the Japanese view of life as reflected in the cherry blossoms. The blossoms are exquisitely beautiful, but fragile and short lived. Within days they’ve fluttered down to the ground, trampled and spoiled in the dirt.Boaters at the Imperial Palace enjoy the gentler side of cherry blossom time.
The Japanese see life the same way. Youth, beauty, and happiness are gone before we know it. Like cherry blossoms, the petals of our life fade and disappear just as we recognize our blossom’s beauty. Life is short. Not a happy thought, but because life is short we should enjoy it while we can. So gay parties roar away beneath the trees, but there is also a touch of sadness for the all-too-short life the blossoms and we viewers share.
The touch of melancholy usually gets washed away in the “life is short, enjoy it while you can” portion of the philosophy. For this short time, Japanese abandon their notorious nose-to-the-grindstone mentality and party. Bacchanalian excess overwhelms Japan’s reserved, dour seriousness.
Party-goers go to extremes for places under the most beautiful trees, pitching a tent the night before a party to hold a choice spot. Company section leaders dispatch junior staff in the early morning to hold a spot until everyone else arrives in the late afternoon. Woe betide the staff if they can’t get the spot the section leader or company president designated.
Some viewers make do with potato chips and “American dogs” (hot dogs at their worst), but others lay out lavish buffets of sushi and sashimi, as well as grills and portable stoves for cooking.
Food and drink lead to song and dance. Traditionalists bring shamisen, a sort of three-stringed banjo. Others bring battery-powered karaoke machines. The more crass (usually somebody high on the corporate ladder) have the flunkies carry in a generator and an enormous laser disc karaoke system.
Still, none of this would happen without the cherry blossoms. Even the hardest drinkers and party-goers sigh wistfully as they brush a fallen petal from their shoulder.Few other cultures bestow such significance to a flower.
Few other cultures greet a blossom with such passion and view its passing with such melancholy.
About 900 years ago the great tanka poet Saigyo (1118-1190) wrote:
Could I but die
Under the cherry blossoms
On the night of the full moon
In the second month of the year.
He was lucky enough to get his wish. It’s believed he passed away with the cherry blossoms in full bloom.
Sakura means the road in Japan will be look mess during the changing season between spring to autumn.