When I was younger, I must admit that I never gave the changing seasons much thought. Besides, growing up in Maryland, it has been my experience that there are only two real seasons: hot and cold. To be honest, I think I only really started paying attention to the changing seasons and marveling at their beauty after my time spent abroad in Japan.
For those who don’t know me too well, I actually went to college for a degree in Japanese language. At the University of Maryland, immersion is something they really push for if you are majoring in a foreign language, and they want their language majors to go abroad. As part of my degree, (and also because hell yeah, who wouldn’t want to go to Japan if they could, and were as big of an anime nerd as me!) I participated in a study abroad program that allowed me to spend a year studying and living in the Tokyo area. One thing I realized while I was there is that the Japanese really pay attention to and take pride in the changing seasons. They see beauty in the entire process from when the first buds of spring appear, all the way to the point that the trees shed their leaves and become bare. Haiku are written about the seasons, certain customs are tied to certain seasons, and (more so true for the Heian era Japan than today, but still acknowledged) certain patterns and color of kimono are worn to correspond with the season.
The most popular and culturally significant example of the Japanese appreciation of the changing seasons is definitely the cherry blossom. A lot of Japanese beauty and art follows the principle of “mono no aware” (物のあわれ) which means “the sadness of things”. This sounds a little depressing on the surface, but the idea is quite complex.
Japan has been an ever changing and tumultuous land throughout history. Geographically, this is easy to see. The entire chain of islands rests on what is known as “The Ring of Fire” a highly volcanic region; therefore volcanic eruptions and earthquakes were common, not to mention tsunami commonly brought on by earthquakes shifting the land under water near the coast. Japan also often falls victim to typhoons in certain parts of the year, just as we have a hurricane season here on the east coast. The weather could be violent and change a landscape drastically at any moment. Fires were also a common occurence and many shrines and old landmarks you will see in Japan will boast having been there since some crazy year like 912; but the truth is that the building you see was more than likely rebuilt in that same spot after the original burnt to the ground multiple times over the centuries. So in truth, the building you will see is a replica of the original building that was there in 912, or whenever.
I know this seems unrelated, but all of this uncertainty and the knowledge that a natural disaster could rip away everything you have and destroy an entire city in seconds built up a sort of idea in the minds of the Japanese people that you need to appreciate and acknowledge the beauty and wonder around you while can —while it’s there—because it could be gone just as quickly as it came. The cherry blossom, in nature, is an embodiment of this philosophy. The cherry blossom (or “Sakura” (桜) in Japanese) is a very delicate flower that blooms for a very short window of time. The best time to view the blossoms in full bloom (which is referred to as “peak bloom”) only lasts a week or two, after which the blossoms fall from the trees.
The cherry blossoms also herald the beginning of spring, so that in addition to the mono no aware concept of their bloom is the heart of the Japanese spring festival. These festivals are held all over Japan and are often called “Sakura Matsuri” (桜祭り) or cherry blossom festival, because they center on the cherry blossom’s peak bloom time. Going out to view the blossoms during peak bloom and just enjoy the beauty of nature is also a common activity in Japan and you will often see many people having a picnic under the cherry trees. This custom is known as “Hanami” (花見) literally: “Flower viewing”.
I had the opportunity to indulge in these customs during my time in Japan and enjoyed it immensely. Since I came home to the USA, I have wanted to do something like that again, but haven’t had much opportunity. In Washington DC, which is fairly close by, the National Cherry Blossom Festival is held annually in April. The festival highlights the 1912 gift from Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki of 3,000 cherry trees to show friendship between USA and Japan. Usually the cherry blossoms are already gone from the trees by that time though, as the actual street festival almost always seems to land on the weekend after peak bloom. Due to the utterly insane last spurt of winter weather we had which brought snow to the area on March 25th, peak bloom was delayed this year, and it seems we may still have blossoms on the trees by the time of the festival this weekend! 🙂
I wanted to go see the trees and relive my Japan experience in my home land, and after encountering a deal on Living Social listed as a “Cherry Blossom Cruise” in which passengers could take a tour boat on the Potomac and see the blossoms from the Tidal Basin area in DC, I decided that I had to go see the blossoms in peak bloom this year or die trying. I bought the deal and convinced my boyfriend to join me for the adventure on Monday, since the weather finally decided to warm up.
We took the cruise, unfortunately we did not get nearly as close to the cherry blossoms as I had hoped, but the tour guide enlightened us with a lot of facts about the founding of our nation’s capital and the landmarks in the area. It’s amazing that I live so close to DC, yet have hardly seen any of the monuments, nor do I know much about them.
After the cruise, we grabbed a bite to eat in Georgetown at Pizzeria Paradiso. It smelled heavenly from the street and enticed us to come in, so we could not refuse. They have amazing food there. Their pizza is cooked in a brick oven over a wood fire. They bring olives soaked in oil and herbs to you table to munch on while you look at the menu. The restaurant also has a seasonal selection of specialty beers. I couldn’t help but sample at least one. I got the Green Tea Stout, which is surprisingly a local brew by Flying Dog in Maryland. I really enjoyed it, and felt compelled to find where I can purchase it at home. In addition to the pizza we ordered we also sampled the Mozzarella Fresca, which I loved. I’m a big fan of cheese; and the mozzarella mixed with the olive oil, orange, olives, and artichoke hearts was an amazing flavor combination. I was surprised how much I liked the marinated artichoke hearts. I am not a big fan of artichoke; perhaps it was the marinade’s magic, but I enjoyed them very much.
After we ate, I convinced my boyfriend to take us over to East Potomac Park so I could get an up close look at the blossoms. We strolled around the park for a while, taking in some nature before eventually deciding to head home. We had hoped to see more of the monuments in the area, but opted to wait until Saturday when we return for the festival. After what we saw that day, I really can’t wait to return! 🙂