Apr 18

Cherry Blossom Fever Consumes Nation!

Victoria, Canada  2015

Victoria, Canada 2015

Here in Victoria, BC, Canada we enjoy a multitude of cherry blossom blooms.  Our glorious sunny spring weather ensured that our blooms were reported on CBC national news, taunting those who were still burdened with snow and wickedly cold weather, day after miserable day.  Here, at the hint of sunshine you will find Victoria’ites clad in biker shorts, flip flops, and tank tops taking morning coffee on outside decks while visions of impending summer activities dance in their heads.  It’s heaven, living on the coast.  When we say we have the best weather, we really mean it.

While we enjoy the blossoms, snap photos to send abroad, and dream of warmer weather to come, the arrival of the blossom is serious business in Japan.  It begins with the “blossom alerts” which start in Okinawa and work their up to the northern tip of the island.  The first blossom sighting makes national news.  After that, the evening news reporter announces the bloom forecast nightly.  S/He will predict when the blossoms will erupt in your locale.  This is necessary because hanami (blossom viewing) parties need to be planned.  Once an arrival date is firmed up, office staff/families begin organizing the party. While many enjoy strolling and viewing the blossoms,  others see this as a time to let loose and party.  There  are the rules, of course, which must be followed to the letter:

  • First, a scouting party is sent out to choose the exact location, under the best tree, for the party.
  • Second, a huge yellow plastic tarp is purchased and a someone is sent out in the morning to lay claim to the spot, charged with staying all day lest someone else makes a play for the spot.
  • Third, after office hours hoards arrive, each bearing food and drink items.  A special envoy is in charge of the karaoke machine.
  • Fourth, the office girls lay out the picnic while the office boys begin to drink themselves into oblivion.  Once this state is reached, karaoke begins.  By now it’s dark but the park rangers have dutifully installed spotlights so that the blossoms can still be viewed in the dark.  In fact, nighttime viewing is quite spectacular.
  • Finally, at an appointed hour, everyone who is able rises and staggers to the train station where they find platforms knee-deep in fellow revelers in various states of inebriation.  (That ugly yellow plastic tarp and the celebratory trash is usually left behind.)  Some don’t make it home.  They might sleep all night on a bench, or crash in a capsule hotel, or if they’re lucky they find their way to an aparto with a soft futon.

And that, my friends, is Japan’s time-honoured tradition of celebrating the fleeting cherry blossom.

I arrived in Japan in the fall of 1994; I celebrated my first hanami  the following May.  It was a chilly day; the blossoms were few but the energy was high.  A picnic table had been tagged and when I arrived with my foreign friends, the table was laden with a variety of traditional foods for the occasion.  Beer, check..  Hot tea, Thank God. Rice dishes, check.  Unfortunately, the wind picked up and by the end of the meal our teeth were chattering.  Every year thereafter,  I found my way to many memorable hanami parties, hosted by students or friends.

cherry blossom poemThis famous poem was given to me by a professor who translated it for me  This poem was written in AD 794, the Heian period in Japan, created by Ono no Komachi, 825-900AD.  As a poet, Komachi specialized in erotic love themes, expressed in complex poems.  Most of her waka are about anxiety, solitude or passionate love. She was the only female poet whose style was described as “naive yet delicate”.

Legends abound of Komachi in love. The most well known is a story about her relationship with Fukakusa no Shosho, a high-ranking courtier. Komachi promised that if he visited her continuously for a hundred nights, then she would become his lover.  Fukakusa no Shosho visited her every night, but failed once towards the end.  Despairing, he fell ill and subsequently died.  When Komachi learned of his death she was overcome with grief.

Some of her later works tend to focus on her talent for waka and her love affairs and the vanity of a life spent indulging in romantic liaisons.  Komachi’s old age is also frequently portrayed: when she has lost her beauty, has been abandoned by her former lovers, and now regrets her life, wandering around as a lonely beggar woman — albeit still appreciated by young admirers of her poetry. This fictional description is influenced by Buddhist thought and there may be no factual resemblance between it and the historical reality.

Here’s the English translation:

A life in vain, My looks, talents faded
like these cherry blossoms
paling in the endless rains
that I gaze out upon, alone.

Not what we’d call uplifting but this poem is filled with many layers of significance, with almost every word carrying more than one meaning.  When recited under the cherry blossom tress, it always brings tears to the listener’s eyes.

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