Japanese Spirit with Western Learning: Flower Viewing and Impermanence

Cherry blossoms and flower viewing have taken over Japan – but only for a limited time! JCMU English Language instructor, Sam Sorenson explains the symbolism behind these flowers before showing us a sneak peak at the upcoming scenery.

Spring in Japan means cherry blossoms. Every spring (generally between late March and early April) people in Japan flock to their local parks for cherry blossom viewing parties (a practice known as hanami 花見 in Japan). At such parties, friends get together, spread out tarps (always blue ones!), and share food and drink under the shade of the blooming cherry trees.

Picture 1Yoyogi Park in Tokyo during hanami season. Notice the ubiquitous blue tarps.

Despite all the joy and exuberance that comes with the cherry blossom season, there is also a kind of melancholy associated with the flower that is uniquely Japanese. This melancholy arises due to the fact that the blossoms only last a short period of time before the petals drop from their branches and scatter in the wind. For this reason, cherry blossoms have come to symbolize the impermanence of life and the fact that all good things only last for a short time before coming to their inevitable end. This concept is expressed quite eloquently in the following poem written by Heian-era (794 to 1185) poet Ono no Komachi:

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

During her career as a poet Ono no Komachi was especially renowned for her great beauty, and this poem written later in her life reflects on the fact that just like the beauty of the cherry blossoms, one’s own beauty does not last forever.

While all these negative thoughts about the ephemeral nature of life can be a little depressing and melodramatic, it is my hope that we can use such thoughts as motivation for us to make the most of the time we do have. And when you’re dealing with cherry blossoms timing is definitely important! As of writing this on April 3rd, the majority of cherry trees in Shiga are showing nothing more than buds. However, by the time this post has been made public most of those trees will have sprouted blossoms and will likely already be starting to scatter their petals. It was for precisely this reason that when I saw on the local news last week that a park in Otsu City, Shiga had several cherry trees already showing blossoms nearly two weeks before the majority of trees in Shiga were forecasted to bloom, I knew I had to seize this opportunity and made the decision to head to the park to see the blossoms for myself.

While I could have made the trip from Hikone to Otsu via train, the weather was nice and I had the time so I thought it would be more of an adventure if I made the trek via my trusty bicycle. I mostly followed the east coast of Lake Biwa as I made my way southwest through areas ranging from wide open countryside, to twisting mountain roads, and finally to the narrow urban streets of Otsu City. Below are some pictures and a video from the journey.

Picture 2A roadside panoramic view of Lake Biwa.

A snippet of my ride along Lake Biwa’s east coast.

Picture 3My bike with Okishima, the biggest island in Lake Biwa.

Picture 4Nanohana flowers with some of Shiga’s magnificent mountains in the background.

My hearty lunch of tonkotsu ramen and kara-age fried chicken at the local restaurant Torimichi

After about five or so hours on my bike I arrived at my destination, Ojigaoka Park.

Picture 7The entrance to Ojigaoka Park and a cherry tree showing no blossoms yet, but what’s that pink off in the distance. . . ?

After making my way deeper into the park I finally found what I had been looking for! Before my eyes were four cherry trees in full bloom – and this, at least two weeks before the true start of the cherry blossom season!

Picture 8

After thoroughly enjoying this limited sneak preview and having taken more than a few pictures, I hopped back on my bike and began my long journey home content with the day’s experience. Below you can see some of the pictures I took, but I encourage everyone if you have the chance to go out and enjoy these truly special flowers in person. Be careful though, because like all good things in life, cherry blossom season will be over before you even know it.

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