Hanami celebrates the ephemeral nature of life and the beauty of friendship and the natural world, but this year the few people I saw engaging in the custom were also celebrating hardiness and perseverance, whether they meant to or not. Hanami is the Japanese custom of having a picnic with friends under the blooming cherry trees in spring, but it was an especially cold and rainy spring in Hirosaki this year, so I was impressed by the few groups of people I saw laying out plastic sheeting and blankets, bundled as they were in raincoats and scarves.
I wasn’t upholding a national custom or family tradition by visiting Hirosaki for the sakura (cherry blossoms), but I did rearrange my schedule and endure the cold and rain for it. I was as determined as those chilly revelers to admire the beauty of the sakura in weather that did its best to mask it.
Hirosaki is in Aomori Prefecture, the northernmost district on the main island of Japan. It’s 400 miles northwest of Tokyo, and part of my journey there was spent on the Shinkansen (bullet train). As expected, the trains were clean, comfortable, and on time. I covered 400 miles in about 5 hours, including changing trains. I’ll repeat what every American who’s ever traveled this way has likely said: Why aren’t we doing this in the States? They love cars in Japan, too, but they still put money, research, and time into the train infrastructure.
Anyway, sakura season was already over in most of the country by the time I arrived in Japan in late April, but I’d done my research and I knew that I could still catch the fleeting beauties if I went north. I saw patches of snow on the hills the closer the train got to Hirosaki, the first snow I’d seen since March of the previous year. Except for a few sunny hours the day I arrived, it was cold and rainy the whole three days I was in town, so I went everywhere in my fleece, raincoat, and scarf. It felt like New Zealand all over again.
Part of the appeal of the sakura is the setting, and Japanese towns go all out in creating the right atmosphere. In Hirosaki, it’s easy, because there used to be a castle there. One of the guard towers of the inner castle still remains, and there are some stone foundations and impressions in the grass that show where other parts of the castle used to be. It’s free to cross the moat and enter the outer walls of the castle, and then to cross the inner moat.
They only charge to enter the inner castle area and the guard tower. My excellent Couchsurfing hosts told me to save my money on the entrance fee, but I spent the $6 anyway. They were right about the guard tower. Steep stairs, half-hearted displays of samurai weaponry, unimpressive views through tiny windows more suited to the arrows of warriors past than the cameras of today’s tourists. But there was a gigantic weeping cherry tree in the courtyard, more in bloom than most of the non-weeping varieties outside, that I was glad I saw.
The grounds are large, and several paths are lined with food and souvenir vendors. I had a pork bun, a sausage on a stick, a chocolate-dipped banana, and a donut that at first struck me as dry and only vaguely sweet, like communion bread, but about halfway through I realized it was delicious, and I wished I’d bought two! Do with that what you will for metaphors about trying new things, sticking it out, etc.
The blossoms were at 10% when I arrived, and maybe 30% when I left (the government issues sakura updates, so you can see what percentage of “open” the blooms are in which areas of the country–that’s how big a deal the sakura and accompanying hanami celebrations are).
The trees exploded in bloom a few days after I left, but that’s how it goes sometimes. The admiration the Japanese have for the sakura is their perfect, delicate beauty and the fact that such beauty is only on display for a short time every year. Cherish the beauty you see in the world, and accept that it’s ephemeral.
Seeing cherry blossoms hang over a red bridge reflected with a castle tower in placid water was still worth it, even if the blossoms were only barely open, even if rain drizzled down the back of my neck and my toes slowly numbed throughout the day, even if I spent a lot of extra money to travel north just for this rather than stay south. The weather did its best to dampen my spirits and dull the bright white blooms of the cherry trees. Nice try, weather, but the blossoms were still beautiful to behold, and I’m glad I went out of my way to see them.