Culture in Bloom

By Nicky Almasy

Culture in Bloom

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The blooming of sakura (cherry blossoms) in Japan each spring isn’t merely a tourist attraction. For the Japanese, it is an event rich in historical and cultural significance.

A wild mob surrounds me. Young men and women scream ear-splitting slogans into megaphones, playfully tease each other, and pogo around the tiny square in what feels like a noisy human whirlpool. Their hair is dyed in vivid shades of orange, green, and electric blue, and their clothing is punk-inspired.

I feel as if I’m in the middle of a mosh pit, and a part of me wants to leave before someone knocks the camera out of my hands. No, I’m not shooting at a Sex Pistols concert in late 1970s London; I’m in the outer fringes of Nagoya, Japan, to cover the Tokoname Spring Dashi Floats Festival, which honours the Shinto gods while celebrating the arrival of sakura in Aichi Prefecture.

The Tokoname Spring Dashi Floats Festival in Tokoname often attracts youngsters, who enjoy showing off their quirky hairdos and fashion.

In a brief moment of calm, I take stock of my surroundings and notice delicate pink and purple sakura designs painted on the faces in the crowd. The cherry blossom patterns are repeated in the cropped hairdos of the youngsters too. And that’s when I’m reassured I’m at the right place. These energetic kids are not punks after all, but are here to celebrate sakura season just like me.

Beyond Beauty

Although cherry blossoms are not just a Japanese phenomenon – they can be found in many other countries including China, Iran, and Canada – the blooms are still widely associated with Japan, and are regarded a national symbol.

The sakura tree-lined road leading to the Tokoishi Shinto Shrine in Tokoname is packed with visitors who are there to worship, and also to witness the parade of floats, which begins from the shrine.

There are over 600 types of sakura in Japan. Most are cultivated exclusively for their aesthetic value and don’t actually produce fruit, while edible cherries come from Prunus avium or cerasus plants, which mostly grow on mountainsides. The variety most commonly seen all across Japan is a hybrid called the Somei Yoshino (Yoshino cherry), which produces pink tinged five-petalled blossoms. It is this tree that creates that breathtaking visual treat, when its white and pale pink hues explode against the contrasting backdrop of a blue sky.

Sakura has been deeply intertwined with Japanese culture for centuries. The first mentions of the blooms can be found in early Japanese literature’s classical waka poetry. There is also evidence of sakura in ancient Japanese music, but the beauty of the blooms doesn’t run dry there: its patterns and colours have inspired pottery and fine handicraft for generations.

In the past, while common folk found contentment in appreciating the flower’s beauty, to the samurai (warrior class), the brief period of the sakura’s blooming was profoundly symbolic and represented the fragility of life. The samurai, who lived by a strict moral code, found poetic, almost comforting meaning in the transient nature of the blooms.

In springtime, several festivals such as the Tokoname Spring Dashi Floats Festival in Tokoname, coincide with sakura season, offering visitors the opportunity to experience local culture while appreciating the cherry blossoms.

Today, sakura still fascinates the masses, and is representative of new beginnings. There are even words that exist only to describe sakura-related experiences. These include hanami, which literally translates into ‘flower viewing’, a tradition that takes centre stage at the annual sakura celebrations, and yozakura, which means ‘sakura at night’ and relates to the custom of viewing the blossoms at night.

Feast for the Senses

In modern times, an entire industry has grown around predicting the blooming period of sakura, with worldwide forecasts massively influencing flight tickets, travel agency fees, and choice of holiday destinations within Japan in springtime. Every year, this forecast results in a surge in international tourism around April. And once one has bought the flight ticket to Japan, missing the full bloom then becomes a major worry: the struggle of “Will I be too early, or will I be too late?” kicks in, and almost becomes part of the thrill.

Indeed, the window for viewing is short – sakura blooms only last a fortnight or so – and you have to choose your destination wisely, but there are also clever ways to predict it. The blooming depends on several factors, such as the types of sakura, latitudes, elevation, and the weather conditions of a particular region. Locations that enjoy mild springtime with average temperatures and light rainfall witness blooms earlier, which is why sakura season often starts off in southern Japan – usually in the Okinawa region where the flowers can come into bloom as early as January – then progresses northwards.

In spring, float parades are a popular draw in various cities in Japan in conjunction with sakura celebrations. Known as dashi, floats also display karakuri (mechanised marionettes).

Fortunately for me, my decision to visit Nagoya paid off, as now that I’m here, I’m able to enjoy the splendour of the season while experiencing other attractions. Just about a 40 minute drive south of Nagoya is Tokoname, which is renowned for the colourful Tokoname Spring Dashi Floats Festival. Held from late March to early May, the festival that heralds the coming of spring features magnificent floats that are paraded through the city accompanied by traditional festival music. These floats were once referred to as kasha (flower cars) as they were literally little cars decorated with flowers.

This is where I encounter the punksters, whose excitement is visible as the parade makes its way to the city centre. Some of the daring youngsters even climb onto the huge floats that feature karakuri (mechanised marionettes)! The crowd cheers every step of the way and the atmosphere is intense and adrenaline-charged.

Ethereal Blooms

After the excitement of the festival, I decide to take things down a notch or two. A little Google-research unveils that Nagoya Castle – one of Nagoya’s most photographed attractions – is stunning this time of year. As a photojournalist, the promise of postcard-perfect images is hard to resist. And Nagoya Castle does not disappoint. When I arrive, the green-roofed castle is framed by a burst of pink blossoms – the sight is magical!

One of the most prominent castles in Central Japan, the Edo-era Nagoya Castle, which belonged to the Tokugawa family, is a popular hanami spot. What was once the surrounds of the castle is today Japan’s fourth largest city – Nagoya.

The city is also the gateway to various other sakura viewing sites. In Iwakura, a city along the Gojo River, the boughs of sakura trees heavy with pinkish-white blooms hang gracefully over the 7km long river – the scene is so mesmerising that I feel as if I’m walking into a painting. If strolling along a path lined with about 1,400 sakura trees is not enough, there’s plenty more. Endless vendors on both sides of the river sell food, drinks, and sakura souvenirs. Another highlight is the nonbori arai, which involves washing the glue off freshly-dyed carp-shaped streamers (flown outside houses in early May during Children’s Day for the well-being of young ones) in the river. While I photograph the scene, a sudden gust of wind sweeps through the sakura trees, and the pinkish petals rain down on the men working below.

Picnic in the Park

Next, I head to Okazaki Castle situated 35km southeast of Nagoya for my very first hanami picnic. The birthplace of Edo Shogunate founder Tokugawa Ieyasu, the majestic castle is of great historic significance. It also boasts beautiful grounds that are perfect for a hanami picnic. This picnic tradition dates back to the Nara period (710 to 784) when plum blossoms were the objects of admiration. By the end of that era, the attention had shifted to cherry blossoms, and remains so till today.

Okazaki Park surrounding Okazaki Castle is a major spot for celebrating sakura season. The park also offers other exciting attractions such as the Tatsuki Shrine, Mikawa Bushi Museum and Ninomaru Noh Theatre.

These days, hanami parties are wildly popular all over Japan. They feature live music and picnic feasts that include onigiri (triangular rice parcels wrapped in nori or dried seaweed sheets), hanami bentos (Japanese-style lunchboxes, which typically include rice or noodles, fish, meat and pickled vegetables) in boxes decorated in spring-like hues of pink, orange and red, and sake (Japanese rice wine).

By the time I arrive at the castle grounds along Otogawa River at midday, groups of people have already gathered under the shade of the sakura trees. Laying out a blanket beneath a particularly pretty tree, I unpack my picnic goodies and settle down to appreciate the transient beauty of the season.

As the hours roll by, more and more people picnic under the trees, and almost every square of green is taken; while the seniors are content with simply appreciating the moment, as expected, the younger generation whip out their smartphones and selfie sticks to record and post their experiences on social media. Despite the generational gap, I notice that people, young or old, are also taking time to get to know and interact with their neighbours.

Two girls, who are part of an ohayashi (traditional musical performance) ensemble, play the shinobue, a flute-like instrument that produces a high-pitched sound, during the Tokoname Spring Dashi Floats Festival.

The evening then takes an unexpected turn when a sudden downpour causes many picnickers to pack up and run for shelter. Some, however, brave the weather and stay put. The rainfall doesn’t spoil the evening for me. Glittering with raindrops, the cherry blossoms make for a spectacular sight against the deep blue evening sky.

Food for Thought

The appeal of sakura extends to the culinary scene too. As the season ends in a dramatic shower of light pink petals each year, these beautiful ingredients – both the leaves and petals – are used in a diverse range of traditional Japanese desserts. The driving force behind their development though, wasn’t taste, but rather, their aesthetic appeal. Often, these sweets are part of the hanami feast itself.

The most common wagashi (Japanese sweet) of the season is sakura mochi, a confection that is believed to have originated 500 years ago, and is most popular around Japan’s Eastern Kanto region. The sweet consists of pink-coloured mochi (glutinous rice cakes) with a red bean paste filling and wrapped in pickled cherry blossom leaves. The sweet paste and saltiness of the pickled leaves make a tasty combo. Another popular snack is hanami dango – glutinous rice balls usually skewered on a stick. Typically, each skewer would be made up of a trio of pink, white and green dumplings, which some belief symbolise the sakura’s pink buds, delicate white petals, and green leaves.

A man washes the glue off a traditional wind sock known as koinobori (carp streamer) in Gojo River. The koinobori are flown during Tango no Sekku, or Children’s Day.

To learn more of the art and culture of sakura wagashi, I visit a sweet shop in downtown Nagoya. Kameya Yoshihiro, established about 70 years ago, is today run by its founder’s grandson, Yoshitaro Hanai. The shop is neat and tidy, with pastel-coloured cake boxes stacked on the shelves. The sweets have the most charming names, such as ‘Cherry Blossom in the Night’ and ‘A Moment of Spring’. I sample the wide selection of mochi as Yoshitaro introduces them. “Each has a different flavour and texture, and reflects spring and cherry blossom season,” he says.

The real magic, however, happens behind the scenes. It’s here that I witness the fascinating operation that churns out these multicoloured gems. When I enter the prep area at the back of the shop, the scene could be out of one of the Alien movies: workers dressed in what resemble spacesuits wrestle with large white tubes amidst puffs of steam. I never would have imagined that such elaborate processes were involved in the making of these delicate sweets.

Yoshitaro says the key ingredient for the sweets is anko, or red bean paste. “But our sakura-themed sweets are only prepared for a month, during sakura season. The rest of the year, wagashi is
served at tea ceremonies – an Edo-era (1603 to 1867) tradition. We also produce wagashi gift boxes to take when you visit friends and relatives.”

Sakura season is every photographer’s paradise. The cherry blossom petals shimmer like gems, and whether they are on the tree or on the ground, the blooms are ideal photography subjects.
Circle of Celebration

Looking back on my journey, which kicked off in a riot of colour at the Tokoname Spring Dashi Floats Festival and culminated in the kitchen of a traditional sweet shop, I can’t help but be amazed with the Japanese and their appreciation of age-old customs. While the younger generation – punks and selfie stick-waving youngsters amongst them – may interpret sakura differently from the samurai of yesteryear, the deeper meaning of this transient season is not lost on them. A reverence for tradition is always at the heart of celebrations, and I believe that it is this deep respect that will ensure the longevity of all things sakura.

Abundance of Spring

These attractions in Aichi Prefecture are simply stunning during sakura season.

Illustration: Tim Lai

1. Inuyama Castle in Inuyama city is one of the oldest and most historic castles in Japan. It presently sits on a site bordering Aichi Prefecture and Gifu Prefecture.
2. The relatively modest Komakiyama Castle built in 1563 occupies a mountaintop site, and was the headquarters of Edo Shogunate founder Tokugawa Ieyasu during the battle of Komaki Nagakute.
3. The Gojo River that runs through Iwakura city is fringed with over a thousand sakura trees. During cherry blossom season, visitors enjoy watching locals wash carp streamers in the river.
4. One of the largest castles in the country, Nagoya Castle is surrounded by breathtaking sakura trees, making it a prime spot for hanami each year.
5. Noritake Garden is located on the former site of the renowned century-old Noritake tableware company in Nagoya. Its craft centre offers an impressive collection of sakura-inspired artworks, and the garden, abundant with sakura trees, is a top hanami spot.
6. One of the most popular hanami destinations is Nagoya’s Tsuruma Park. Known for its central masterpiece – a European-style fountain – the park is home to 1,200 cherry blossom trees.
7. Close to Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Nagoya is Heiwa Koen, also popularly known as Peace Park. This 150-hectare park encompasses trails, waterways and a cemetery, providing visitors a rather unique hanami experience.
8. The Tokoname Spring Dashi Floats Festival is held annually in Tokoname city in honour of Shinto gods. It is also a celebration of sakura season, which heralds the arrival of spring.
9. The historic Okazaki Castle on the outskirts of Nagoya becomes a hanami haven each year, with hundreds of picnickers celebrating the start of spring.

Speaking of Sakura…

Sakura is so entrenched in Japanese culture that the blooms command a vocabulary of their own. For example, the phrase hana yori dango translates into ‘dumplings over flowers’, and is used to playfully mock someone who prefers eating over enjoying something beautiful or romantic. Hana yori dango is a saying that has its origins in the hanami, referring to people who are more interested in the food and drink at hanami gatherings than the blossoms. Then there is the
rather strange quote, ‘Sakura no ki no shita ni wa shitai ga umatte iru!’, which means ‘Dead bodies are buried under the sakura!’. Despite its sinister air, its origins are quite innocent – it is the opening line of Under the Cherry Trees, a classic 1928 short story by Japanese writer Motojiro Kajii. The line refers not to actual dead bodies under cherry trees, but portrays a sense of disbelief at the exquisite beauty of sakura, and is a reflection of the transient nature of human existence.

Hanami picnics range from simple affairs to lavish spreads with wine! Staples include onigiri (triangular rice parcels) and sakura-inspired wagashi (sweets).
On the Hanami Menu

There are some essential items to throw the perfect hanami picnic. The most important thing is the bento box, which is usually readied in advance at home. Hanami bentos include onigiri, inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed in fried tofu pouches), tamagoyaki (Japanese-style omelette), makizushi (sushi rolls), and kamaboko (pink and white fish cakes). The feast should also include fried and grilled dishes such as kara-age (boneless, bite-sized fried chicken), takoyaki (grilled octopus balls), ebi fry (breaded fried shrimp), salads, and tsukemono (pickled vegetables). For drinks, sake, plum wine and ume (plum) spritzer are essential, but a six-pack of Kirin beer would do nicely too.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to various destinations in Japan.

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About the Author

Nicky Almasy

Originally starting out in London and New York working mainly for music publications, Nicky Almasy moved to Shanghai, China in 2006, developing a life-long interest in Asian culture. During his 10 years in the city he worked for various magazines and publications while on commission to work on the second tallest building in the world, Shanghai Tower, documenting its construction over 5 years. Leaving Shanghai in 2016, he decided to take on Southeast Asia to explore Asian culture even further.

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