Prepare yourself for all the photos of various blossoms. Because Japan in the spring = flowers. You have been warned.
Plum blossoms are one of the first signs of spring to arrive on the scene–they range in color from white to pink, and give off a strong, sweet scent. They instantly became my favorite of the flowering trees. My friends and I celebrated their arrival at Kairakuen’s annual Plum Blossom festival back in early March. Located in Ibaraki’s capital city of Mito, Kairakuen is a top 3 famous landscaped garden in Japan, notable for its 3,000 plum trees (hence it really is the ideal place for a plum blossom festival!)
Although the festival is spread out over a few different weekends, we went on a day where they were holding an ume-shu (plum wine) tasting event! For just 700 yen, you could taste all the plum wines you wanted (140+ varieties from all 47 prefectures of Japan) within the 30 minute time limit. All the old ladies pouring the different plum wines were quite generous, filling to the brim our little thimble of a paper cup, and they were all very insistent that you try the plum wines they were in charge of!
I tasted about 27 varieties, ranging from Hiroshima prefecture and Wakayama prefecture to those made in my own Ibaraki. Notable wines included a ridiculously spicy variety (with a devil on its label) from Fukui prefecture, a plum-wine-and-green-tea mixture from Kyoto prefecture, a rather delicious milk-and-plum wine from Fukuoka prefecture, a not-so-delicious gold-flecked wine from Gifu, and our favorite, a refreshing and sweet plum wine from Hyougo.
Contrary to my own naive belief, peach blossoms aren’t peach-colored. Nor do they signal that fresh peaches will be available in the local markets. But I still love them.
Following plum blossoms, peach blossoms are next to bloom, and they are absolutely brilliant: a terribly underrated flower in my opinion. The blossoms are a vibrant pink, and although they don’t have a particularly strong scent, their gorgeous coloring well makes up for it. To view the flowers, we went to a regionally famous Peach Blossom festival in Koga, Ibaraki.
One of the fun things about festivals in Japan is that they don’t always make sense. We went to the peach blossom festival expecting flowers and street food, which is exactly what we got… plus an hour-long hip-hop showcase from a local dance studio. It was quite a fun performance to watch, although there were several times where I was thankful that the kids and the audience members alike didn’t know what the English lyrics really meant.
It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon — blossom viewing, food, and a great dance performance, all culminating in some well-deserved peach-blossom-flavored ice cream cones.
This is what everyone has been waiting for, right? Cherry blossoms, a.k.a. さくら (sakura), a.k.a. the flower that Japan is internationally famous for.
Cherry blossoms are pale pink or white flowers with a light, sweet scent. Individually, I don’t think that they are particularly more impressive than plum blossoms. However, what really makes cherry blossoms special is the fact that they are EVERYWHERE. The sheer numbers of cherry blossom trees in bloom all around Japan, to me, make them truly stand apart.
Because of this, I can’t say that I viewed cherry blossoms in any one particular place. I saw them in both Shinjuku-gyoen and Ueno park in Tokyo (along with a million other tourists from around the world), I saw them more locally in Koga, Ibaraki, and I even saw them in the tiny park across the street from my apartment.
While the trip to Tokyo was a lot of fun, I didn’t think Tokyo was necessarily the best place to see cherry blossoms. Too many people. I had more fun at the more local festivals (one of which featured a hula performance for unknown reasons), and even at my local park, where I would see elementary school kids running around throwing fallen petals at each other, and where old friends would meet on the bench and sit late into the night, talking under the blooming trees.
My favorite part about the two weeks of cherry blossoms was a period of about two days towards the end, where the petals were starting to fall off in significant numbers, but where the trees still looked pretty full. One of these days was sunny and breezy, and it resulted in beautiful snowstorms of cherry blossom petals, just like you see in Japanese anime. It’s real, people.
These past two months have taught me that the Japanese truly celebrate all of these flowers to the fullest. The transitory nature of these blossoms is appreciated here in a way that spring has never quite been appreciated where I am from in America.
Daily conversation for the past two weeks has revolved around whether or not you have seen the cherry blossoms, and if so, where did you view them? Where did you eat and drink with friends underneath them? I feel as if the real question is, did you notice? Did you realize the importance — the sadness, the beauty — of these ephemeral things?
And I can say, yes, I did.