When my daughter and her family lived in Japan I greatly enjoyed my visits and came to appreciate so many aspects of Japanese culture in addition to the excellent food. Ceramics, art, Zen stone gardens, the reviving experience of bathing in an onsen, a hot spring, were wonderful discoveries. The one I found most unusual was hanami (flower viewing), the tradition of welcoming spring through the arrival of the sakura, cherry blossom. I knew about the Japanese reverence for, and careful observation of flowers, but it wasn’t until I joined in that I understood and shared the enthusiasm. The beginning of the season is eagerly awaited. The weather forecast broadcasts daily bulletins from when the blossom first breaks in the south to show where the blossom has reached until it opens in the northern island of Hokkaido. The season is brief, from early March until early May; the blossoms last for a week or two.
Only once a year does the National Mint in Osaka opens its superb gardens for a week in mid April to view the cherry blossom. The Mint gardens have about 100 varieties of cherry, from almost white to dark pink and single and double blossoms. The garden was filled with an orderly crowd, slowly moving along, as people stopped to admire individual blossoms, set up cameras on tripods to take photographs, pointing out to their friends those they found most beautiful or most unusual.
A few days later we were in Kyoto on the beautiful Philosopher’s Walk, where cherry trees line the canal on a path that extends from the Ginkaku-ji temple to Nanzen-ji. It is a perfect place to stroll, and especially in cherry blossom season. Again there were many people out to admire and photograph the blossom, some of them wearing traditional dress. Here we also discovered sakura ice cream, delicately perfumed and flavoured with cherry blossom.
Hanami picnics are an essential part of the festivities, in the daytime or the evening, when groups spread out their rugs, preferably beneath cherry trees, as at Himeji castle, or alongside water. Sometimes the picnic seemed to be little more that a lunchtime sandwich, but more frequently there were fancier picnics, sometimes with portable barbecues and drink coolers, and elegant dishes accompanied by sake. We were invited to join a big group at Himeji and later in the season had our own family picnic, surrounded by Japanese families. The children played and the adults communicated about the beautiful blossom and the fine evening in halting English.