Plum Blossoms, Peach Blossoms, and Cherry Blossoms, Oh my!

Prepare yourself for all the photos of various blossoms. Because Japan in the spring = flowers. You have been warned.

IMG_4551

Plum Blossoms

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.

Peach Blossoms

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.

IMG_5188

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.

Cherry Blossoms

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.

IMG_5186

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.

IMG_5159

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.

Anecdotes 3: The Question of Shoes

I’m at a lunchtime joshikai (a women-only party) with my colleagues. My mind is wandering due to all the Japanese being spoken around me, when suddenly my JTE translates a question that all my other female coworkers are apparently itching to know the answer to:

JTE: What do you do with your shoes?

Me: (snapping back to reality) Huh?

JTE: In your house in America, what do you do with your shoes?

Me: Oh. Well, in my house, the front door opens to a mudroom. It’s like a little hallway with a closet, where we put our shoes and hang up jackets.

*My JTE translates this, and the other women are fascinated*

Me: It’s not that different from Japan….

JTE: We are surprised! On all the American TV shows, people are always wearing their shoes in the house. So dirty! We thought Americans only take off their shoes to go to bed!

*The other women nod vigorously*

Me: (trying to clear up gross cultural misunderstandings thanks to television) We definitely take our shoes off when entering the house. Most people, at least. Most of the time. Anyways, way before bed!

JTE: You really aren’t that different from Japan! (All the other ladies nod, delighted).

Me: (internally) YES! FINALLY! A moment of bridging cultural divides! We AREN’T so different! SUCCESS!!

JTE: And you have indoor shoes?

Me: (this stops my celebration short) Uhhh….. no. We just wear socks in the house… or bare feet… sometimes slippers in the winter when it’s cold? (Thinking about it a little more) Indoor shoes aren’t really a common concept in America…

*My JTE translates this, and everyone is quiet for a bit*

Finally one of the other ladies throws in her two cents: Oh. Different.

End of conversation.

A Sunrise Hike of Mount Tsukuba

One Sunday back in February, a few of us decided to wake up at 3 in the morning, drive to our local mountain, and summit it in time to see the sunrise. This is what happened:

IMG_4363

Mt. Tsukuba is a little over an hour’s drive from any of our apartments, so we set out around 3:30 in the morning, stopped at 7/11 for breakfast… and arrived a bit later than expected, unfortunately. Although 4:50 a.m. is still a pretty impressive hour of day to be awake and standing at the base of a mountain.

The lower half of Mount Tsukuba is pretty densely forested. When you are hiking up in hopes of seeing the sunrise (aka in pitch-black darkness),  everything is so secret, and so quiet, and just a little lonely. You only hear the wind rippling through the trees, your own panting breath, and smatterings of birdsong that rise and fade in the darkness. You only see the small circle of light cast by your headlamp — all the rest is shadow, and the tree trunks look the slightest bit ghostly in the darkness. It depends on the person, but this could either be the setting for moments of inner peace….

or moments of foreboding where you start remembering all the horror movies you’ve ever watched…

Anyways, it was a fun opportunity to try out our fancy new headlamps, at least until the sky brightened. We ended up missing the sunrise by about an hour, but we still had magnificent views from the top.

IMG_4365

IMG_4360

We even made a friend at the very top of the mountain!

As we were huddled up against the wind, waiting for the cable car to open for the day so we could quickly descend (spoiler: the cable car on Tsukuba only opens at 9:20 a.m.) we were joined by a ginger cat who was also a little chilly. He snuggled right up to us and started purring away. We all bought hot teas from the vending machines at the top of the mountain (because Japan is awesome like that) and every so often, when the cat began to shiver, we pressed a hot tea bottle against his fur to warm him up again.

He stayed with us until the cable car whirred into operation, bringing shop ladies up to open the summit’s ice cream stores, and bringing us down the mountain for a long drive home.

IMG_4366

It was an incredibly different experience to hike up Tsukuba without the jostle of other hikers. Mount Tsukuba is a very popular (very easy) mountain, so it is always crawling with people of all levels of fitness — even the occasional toddler. Especially near the top, it is easy to get stuck behind a bunch of other people. Caught in the swarm of hikers, you don’t feel very connected to nature.

In contrast,  for most of our sunrise hike, we felt like we were the only ones on the mountain. It was so quiet, so unbelievably peaceful. It was just us, and the trees, and the rocks, and the clouds, and the crisp cold morning air.

And it felt wonderful to be alive.

IMG_4364