Sunday, April 1, 2007

I'm All Hanami'd Out!

It's Sakura season in Japan. Almost everywhere the cherry blossoms are in full-bloom or close enough, so people are taking their weekend afternoons and spending them lounging around on blue plastic tarps, drinking beer and eating yakitori under the white or pink flowering trees. These picnics- called hanami- are for enjoying time with friends and family while savoring the bittersweet brevity of the cherry blossoms.

Saturday, I went with 3 of my students and my friend T out to the Hamamatsu Flower Park for our own hanami. I really expected just to walk around looking at flowers, but we did the whole schmear. Lots of homemade treats and some store-bought ones as well. It was a chilly, cloudy day threatening rain... lots of dark shadows over the nearby mountains... but the wetness held off until almost midnight.

T and I walked and talked and giggled a lot at our various corny remarks and silly stunts. We fed ducks and koi and watched families at play together.

Today, with much better weather, T and I ate lunch at SaintMark, a restaurant and bakery where the servers bring around baskets of bread while you eat. After filling up on bread and elegantly small portions of 5-grain soup, seafood yakitori and steak, we went to Hamamatsu Castle Park, another choice hanami spot. We crossed through a former railway tunnel that's now part of a nature walk contained within the urban environs of Hamamatsu. Four years ago, my friend Mike and I got lost looking for the castle in the exact same area. Turns out we just didn't walk down far enough.

The paved path was lined with white blossomed cherry trees, and down a slope in a grassy park, there were dozens of hanami groups on the requisite blue tarps. T made fun of them in a good-natured way, declaring them "Real Japanese style" and imitating their laughter.

Beneath Hamamatsu Castle, there's a tree-ringed field that was also full. Picnickers lolled about on blankets and tarps under the trees, while in the middle groups of people played netless badminton or kicked soccer balls around, and one father/son duo threw a baseball, the father feeding the boy hard grounders the kid fielded with soft hands and well-practiced skill.

An eclectic group of musicians and performers were giving a concert nearby. They'd outfitted themselves in traditional Japanese performance garb, and two of the guys had sakura body paintings and were posing for pictures, while a couple of women with painted faces pranced around in these armless, legless ghost costumes.

At one point, one of the women silently allowed a couple of cute kids to torment her. She stayed in character the whole time, even when posing for a photograph with the kids for their grandmother. When she finally made her way back for the group's next performance, the children shouted after her in shrill voices, which cracked up T.

She imitated them: "'Can you speak Japanese? Why don't you speak? Why can't you speak Japanese?'"

It was almost as if they truly believed she truly was an otherworldly creature. Or at least had themselves half-convinced by her craft and their own childish imaginations.

We walked up the stone steps among cherry trees and paper lanterns and went into the castle. Inside there are displays of classic samurai arms and armor. Katana and even musketry from the final spasms of the great wars for Japanese unification, the process finally completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu himself, commemorated by a large bronze statue outside.

We walked through the gardens, over a bridge below which white and orange koi glided in dark green water, white cherry blossoms speckling its surface.

I snapped a lot of pictures and I'll try to post them soon.

Afterwards, we drove out to Aeon Shitoro Shopping Center and shared a chocolate brownie at the Starbucks there. Then we ate at Sawayaka, a popular "hamburg" steak restaurant. T was feeling tired and under the weather from what is possibly a cold so we called it quits after that.

Finally, I got to experience the hanami. As enamored as I am with various Japanese customs and history, I'm more a fan of the modern subcultures here. The avant garde music scene and the crazy fashionistas in Harajuku. But the hanami is one tradition that should be adopted by the rest of the world. It's a beauty of an idea, as delicate and as fragile as the short-lived cherry blossom and as warm and inviting as sharing a beer and some delicious food with your best friend.


RAB said...

That restaurant where you ate lunch being named "SaintMark" jumps out at me. Does that name have some significance in Japan? I ask because the center of the expatriate Japanese neighborhood in New York City is a street called Saint Marks Place, so I always associate that name with crowds of Japanese tourists, Japanese restaurants, and Japanese groceries where the Pocky fields stretch for miles and the konnyaku quivers in its glistening wrappers...

Sorry, I must be hungry. Anyway, it's probably just coincidence, but I had to ask.

Joel Bryan said...

RAB- I have no idea if there's any significance. I'll bet if I ask any of my Japanese students they won't know either! But at least thanks to you, now I understand a line from the Cibo Matto song "Sci-Fi Wasabi:"

"Don't give chase/I'm at Saint Marks Place"

Strangely, the way it's pronounced here is more like "Sandmark." So much so, before I actually read the sign, I was convinced she was taking me to a restaurant called Sandmark.