London, England; March 5, 2015
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.
I had no winter this year, but I still gloried in spring. It’s amazing the psychological effect a fresh breeze and budding flowers can have, even when you aren’t thawing from a long, cold winter. I’d been melting in the tropics, and as gorgeous as the flora and fauna of Southeast Asia were, it was a relief for this Midwesterner to be back in temperate climes just as everything was starting to warm.
I went to the national park at Shinrin-koen in the Saitama region, one fine Saturday afternoon. It’s a sprawling park, and every inch of it is carefully manicured. There was no wildness at all there, so it felt more like a garden than what I think of when I think “national park.” It was a garden of wonders, one of the best-planned parks I’ve ever been to.
Straight off, giant plush mascots greeted families as they entered the park, and posed for photos with children. This set the stage for the rest of the park, which was packed with frolicking kids and relaxed parents. This was a sunny weekend at the beginning of Golden Week, the biggest holiday week in the country, so it was no wonder it was full of families. Still, it was a big enough park that I was able to find my own patch of grass in a quiet corner and read a book for an hour.
I walked on broad, paved paths, while cyclists zipped by on separate paths (brilliant move). You can rent bicycles at several of the entrances to the park, or of course, bring your own. There was a motorized train you could pay to get from one end of the park to the other, since it was so large. Signs were placed throughout the park reminding visitors not to remove plants or animals. Most signs were in both Japanese and English, and I got an English map at the park entrance, which was very helpful.
The park was made up of lots of different areas–sculpture garden, performance pavilion, cherry tree grove, barbecue grills, giant trampoline, tulip garden, pony rides, lake dotted with water fowl, snack shack, play structure, and a lot of other places I didn’t get to in the three hours I was there. I walked over what a sign said were the ruins of a castle, although by this point they were just indentations in the earth.
The giant trampoline was more like a white dome of soft, bouncy material, and kids from toddler age on up to about ten were having great fun jumping around and sliding down to the ground, then clambering up again. I had my first Japanese soft-serve ice cream, which I found out later was a majorly popular treat throughout the country. Vanilla and rose flavor, delicious.
I posed for photos in front of various trees and flowers, and smiled at all the kids throwing up peace signs in their photos. It was a lovely day for a walk in the park, and if I’m ever in the area again, I’ll go back.