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att. Culture - Calendar - Japan Now
att. Culture - Calendar - Japan Now
att.JAPAN Issue 21, March 2005

Calendar - Japan Now - March & April

The Japanese spring is said to be from March to May. As in other areas of the world, the arrival of spring in the archipelago makes people happy as in particular do the ume (plum, or Japanese apricot) blossoms which are in full bloom around March. Many ume-matsuri or plum blossom festivals are held in areas famous for their ume trees and as it becomes warmer and the rains become more frequent, cherry blossoms start to open up and the nation is country suddenly finds itself in festive mood once more. Many Japanese become excited when surrounded by such beautiful flowers during the onset of mild weather following winter.

 Hina-Matsuri (Girl's Festival)
Dolls displayed at the Girl's Festival March 3rd is Girl's Festival in Japan - an event celebrated annually on this date and sometimes called The Peach Festival as it celebrates the growth and happiness of young girls. Families with a daughter or daughters display dolls alongside peach blossoms, hinaarare (rice crackers), hishimochi (red, green and white rice cakes cut in lozenge style pieces), and sweet white sake as the people celebrating the festival, like those of yesteryear, show their appreciation of the event by drinking drank sake in which they float a real peach blossom.
The Girl's Festival has a long history and originated in the ancient Chinese custom of people transferring their uncleanliness through evil acts to dolls in order to drive out evil spirits by floating them away on a river. When this tradition reached Japan, it was combined with the act of playing with doll's with the result being the current form of the modern-day festival. On this day, many families celebrating Hina-Matsuri eat chirashi-zushi (mixed rice dressed with vinegar) accompanied by clam soup.
Dolls wearing elegant old court costumes are displayed on a five or sometimes seven tiered stand covered with a scarlet carpet and girls were probably once expected to develop into elegant adults like the court ladies of old. Hard to display due to the sheer number of small and decorative accessories on the stand, the displays of dolls at this time of year truly are a work of art worth seeing.
A down side of the festival however, is that families with daughters receive a lot of leaflets from those intending to sell such associated accessories and soon after the turn of the year and are also inundated with TV commercials aimed at the same goal. For a different reason altogether though, the belief that daughters will remain unmarried into old age unless they do so, families put the dolls and decorations away soon after March 3rd.

 Cherry Blossoms
The Cherry Blossom Front When it comes to cherry blossoms, most Japanese people are either interested or, more likely, very interested in this subject. Often spending a great deal of time considering when cherry blossoms will be blooming at their peak, when and with whom they will have their annual cherry blossom viewing parties and of course, at which particular location, many Japanese really see the seasons turning and realize that spring is coming when the cherry blossoms start to become a topic of conversation.
The National Metrological Agency announces daily forecasts on the cherry blossom front as it crosses the nation south to north and, plotting lines like a contour on the map of Japan, shows prospective flowering dates for each region. Generally, cherry blossoms reach full bloom in most parts of the country from the end of March to early April but this does depends on the year and the weather. Changeable weather persists at this time of year with some days warm and others as cold as deep winter making the blooming dates of the cherry blossoms debatable at best. Sometimes the heavens can open and the pitiless rains can scatter the blossoms far and wide meaning that the average lifespan of the cherry blossoms are but a few days. This 'temporary'view of life is much discussed in the Japanese culture and is often viewed as an attractive form of existence - much in the same way as the samurai of years gone by were admired.
Another, often forgotten side of the cherry blossom reign is that they provide a most popular subject for artists and writers. Cherry blossoms have been the subject of domestic literature, dance and painting since time immemorial.

 Cherry Blossom Viewing
Cherry Blossoms From the early days of Japanese history, cherry blossom viewing was one of the essential annual events for the aristocracy. Cherry blossoms were already used during various events around the Imperial Palace during the late Heian Period (8th century - late 12th century) and the evidence that both aristocrats and warriors alike loved the blossoms can be seen in numerous picture scrolls and decorations of arms from the time.
Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408), the 3rd Shogun of the Muromachi Shogunate, filled Rokuon-ji Temple, often called Kinkaku-ji becasuse of its famed Golden Pavilion, ('kin' means gold in Japanese and 'ji' is temple) and also his house in the Muromachi district with cherry blossoms giving it the nickname of "the flower palace."
Cherry blossom viewing parties increased and spread in popularity during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1598) with the parties held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Yoshino and Daigo the supposed supreme of the then aristocratic parties. These parties are remembered on Rakuchu-Rakugai-zu-byobu and Fuzoku-zu-byobu folding screens - all showing scenes from these events. Hideyoshi, then supreme leader of Japan loved the view of Sanpo-in in Daigo-ji Temple at this time of year and the famous viewing party in Daigo in the spring of 1598 was the last party the mighty Hideyoshi hosted, along with his son Hideyori, his wife Kitanomandokoro, Yododono and 1300 feudal lords. Hideyoshi reconstructed the Daigo-ji buildings in large part, including removing the Kondo specially for the viewing party.
Cherry Blossom Viewing For commonfolk however, it was from the Edo period that they were really able to enjoy cherry blossom viewing parties, which, until that time had been popular predominantly among the higher classes. Most of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo (then called Edo) were transplanted from Mt. Yoshinoyama in Nara Prefecture and ruling shogun who loved flowers and blooms, including Tokugawa Ieyasu, Hidetada and Iemitsu, encouraged their subjects to plant cherry trees. Edo became a center for exchanging the varieties of cherry tree, due to the sankin-kotai policy (the daimyo's altenate-year residence in Edo rule), and as a result, many famous places at which to see the blossoms were established. Many of these places still exist today.
Around this time of year, many many people enjoy sitting under the canopies of cherry blossoms, eating delicious food, drinking, singing and dancing at all times of the day or night - a time many areas light up their cherry blossoms. Literally thousands of ideal spots can be found the length of Japan but wherever cherry blossoms are to be found a party can be held. Many company freshmen are often sent out early in the morning to reserve and hold that perfect place for a party later in the day.

 Spring Living
As the year becomes warmer and brighter, far more pastel colored clothing appears and the heavy looking winter coats are put away. Although still actually cold; it can sometimes snow in March, spring feels as if it is here with some days in April pushing the thermometer over 20 degrees celsius.
The pollen of millions of cedar, cypress and other similar trees all but cover the nation in early spring with the result being that as many as 20 % of the Japanese people are believed to suffer from hay fever.
In Japan the academic year runs from April to March and most schools announce their test results from February to March. Graduation ceremonies are held in March while entrance ceremonies and are held in April for new incumbents of Japan's school systems. As is the case globally, many people buy new clothing and necessities for the upcoming scool year.
Baseball, one of the most popular sports in Japan is well represented in spring. The Senbatsu Tournament (A National Invitational High School Baseball Tournament) is held in March and professional baseball throws its first pitches in late March in the case of the Pacific League, on the 26th, with its sister league - the Central League getting into gear on April 1st.
And after all this spring action, the Golden Week holidays are just around the corner - set to start at the end of April.

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