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att. Culture - Sakura
att. Culture - Sakura
att.JAPAN Issue 11, April 2003


SakuraPink petals blanket the entire country and fade just as fast as they came. The country warms up as the cherry opens the gates of spring

 Welcome to the Soul of the Nation
It's that time of year again. The sun has returned once again to keep us more company in our northern sphere causing the freezing cold that has plagued us for a small eternity to retreat back to it's Siberian domain. The call of the uguisu (Japanese bush warbler, Cettia diphone) cries out in the nearby parks and wilderness, and local students all over the country have promoted a grade up, or graduated and are facing their next step in education. The cherries are getting ready to bloom. And when they have, they will leave the warmth of spring in their wake, to cheer up the cold and somber spirit that lingers within the depths of the winter.

 Sakura Basics
The cherry tree is hard to miss. It is a medium tree composed of dark brown, speckled, shiney bark, that matures crusty and rough. It has attractive ornamental, hard, blood-reddish brown wood used in every type of showy woodwork. The winter has left the cherry tree in a naked condition, exposing its deep black-brown limbs and sticks. As spring comes into being, the lonely cluttering network of trunks, poles and stick mesh, displays an awsome explosion of white, pink, and sometimes reddish blankets of blossoms, becoming the center of attention and the top topic of every conversation. Daily news broadcastings cut into the regularly scheduled weather report to bring eager hanami fans the 'cherry forcast,' and Saturday morning specials have gone on-location to the southern sub-tropic Japanese paradise, Okinawa, to bring the rest of Japan special coverage of Japan's first cherries of the year weeks before we will ever get to see them locally for ourselves.

 Hanami Mania- The King Of All Pic-nics
Sakura For newcomers to Japan, hanami ('flower veiwing') is a fresh new experience, but to locals, the cherry blossom marks just another year. Around this time of year in Japan, many things meet the end of their terms and start anew, just like the cherry tree. Spring in Asia is about new beginnings- a time to start over and forget the past, while observing the joys of nature brought back to the environment by the returning of spring.
Blossoms of large cherry plantings brighten the dimmest of cloudy days. Underneath, during the days of hanami, is a sea of contrastedly dark-clothed, conservatively dressed people, some slowly flowing in a crowd like a river, others on the ground defending their flower veiwing territory, drinking, barbequeing and singing with their friends and family. The Japanese staple diet temporarily shifts from rice and fish to mochi, dango, sake, beer, and fried, dried, or pickled drinking food- celebration food. Often, hanami-goers come the day before and camp out just for a good viewing spot. Others will attempt to fence off their area the day before or early morning. Heated arguments arrise if territories are violated- especially later on in the day when cheeks and necks are turned a slightly darker shade of cherry pink with alcohol. The party never stops in large cities until the trains do their last runs. Although the congested crowd thins out, people are known to stay out late night. The cherry trees are all lit up, perfectly reflecting the light back out into the boisterous dark crowd. Later in the week, sometimes two, all the delicate paper petals rain down, littering the streets, ponds, and cities with blessed petal, lining walkways fit for royalty. The rain of petals pours until there is nothing left. In no time, the cherry has come and gone, but the natives never cease to proclaim that the sakura is part of their soul.

 Cherry Worth a Second Taste
Sakura The fruits of the Japanese wild cherry, widely planted and viewed throughout Japan during hanami are not used in Japanese cooking as much as the ume, or Japanese plum. But with raw ume often claimed "poison until salted and cured," one would think that at least some Japanese wild cherries (of which now number around three or four hundred varieties) could be eaten if processed to a certain degree before consumtion. In fact, wild cherry fruits are not eaten at all in Japan (that is, they are not harvested and sold as produce), but there are still a number of traditional food creations that instead, surprizingly include the vegetable parts of the the cherry tree. Each spring the flowers are harvested, dried and pounded with rice to make cherry rice cakes or sakura mochi, ordinary mochi cake with a pleasant hint of rosey cherry blossom aroma. It is an addicting aroma, something that somehow seems familiar. The familiar scent can be found traditionally throughout temperate weather Eurasia. But upon trying the sakura mochi, is the realization it is not just sweet, but also quite salty. The leaves are pickled like an umeboshi, or pickled plum. While slightly salty, the leaf wrapping gives the sakura mochi an almost nutty, distinctly grassy flavor.

 Named By A God Named Sa
Sakura The word sakura is beleived by etymologists to originally be composed of two parts: 'sa,' and 'kura.' In the ancient language of Japanese, 'sa' was used as a prefix or suffix, and even added to the middle of words. This word particle is used in many archaic Japanese words, and although the meaning it carries has lost meaning to all modern Japanese speakers, it is still present in so many modern words. The word particle 'sa' is short for the original 'sakami,' or 'sagami'- the 'kami' there means god. Sakami is the name for a mountain god in ancient Japanese Shinto mythology. In the story for the origin of the cherry tree, a goddess Princess Konohanasakuya, is said to have sprinkled from the heavens the first cherry seeds from atop Mt. Fuji. The cherry tree is therefore a tree of the mountains, and associated with Sakami. The next part of the word is kura. A kura in old Japanese was a seat that gods would rest on- a holy seat and resting place for gods. While sakura will only mean 'cherry (tree)' to modern Japanese speakers, in its original form, it meant "the seat of mountain god Sakami" (but there are other theories as well).

 Where Can I See the Flowers?
Sakura Of the cherry varieties, there are popular ones: someiyoshino (a crossbreed, and the most numerous), yamazakura (mountain cherry), shidarezakura (weeping cherry), others include higananzakura, and kanzakura (an early bloomer). Come hanami season in the large cities, you will realize that there are few places that lack cherry trees. They line entire streets, and any park you go to should have some sort of cherry tree- at least one. Of course, people usually don't sit down on the curb to enjoy hanami. It must usually be in a park, temple, shrine, or down by a riverside. Parks with ponds or rivers have an added attraction, as you can usually row out and rest under the limbs. Tokyo has a number of parks: Ueno Park, Koishikawa Botanical Garden, Inokashira Park, Jingu Gaien Park, Shiba Park, Shinjuku Gyoen Park, and Sumida Park are a good start; in Kyoto, try Daigoji Temple, Heian Shrine, Ninnaji Temple, or Tetsugaku no Michi; in Nagoya check out Higashiyama Zoological and Botanical Gardens, Heiwa Park, Nagoya Castle, or Kaori-Ryu Kawa Midori no Michi; in Osaka walk through Keuma Sakuranomiya Park, Fumin no Mori Narukawa Park, and Osaka Castle Park. Better plan in advanced, before the short lived blossoms disappear.

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