Saturday, 3 April 2010

Sakura, Sakura

I often wonder when the Japanese obsession with cherry blossoms (sakura) began. From mid-March, most of Japan is tinged with various shades of pink until mid-April, depending on the variety of cherry blossom and the location. Cherry blossom trees in full bloom are a beautiful sight, and it is one that never ceases to put a smile on my face and make me feel good. I have fond memories of my morning commute to Osaka with the trees in full bloom on either side of the train tracks for a few kilometres—a great start to the day. 

By this time of year, everyone has had enough of the cold weather. The midday temperatures are slowly becoming warmer. Everyone wants to escape the stuffy confines of their home or office. What better way to welcome the beginning of spring than sitting under the cherry blossom trees, having a good time with friends. Not that we need an excuse to party, but any excuse is a good excuse, right?
The word hanami—literally, flower viewing—is on everyone’s lips as soon as reports of the first blossom break. Even though the word hana means flower or flowers, I was soon corrected when I used the term to refer to plum blossom viewing. Hanami is only used to refer to sakura viewing parties. 
Shown in the photo below is a typical hanami picnic. The blue sheet is ubiquitous, though sometimes green. Hanami is not hanami without it, though some people do improvise with a newspaper or a plastic bag when hanami-ing on a whim. When I first came to Japan, the karaoke machine was also a necessary accessory for hanami. Many foreigners would have stories about being dragged into a group and eventually made to sing ‘My Way’. But with the proliferation of karaoke boxes, karaoke machines are not seen at hanami as often, today.
One of the best locations in the Hanshin area to relax and enjoy the flowers over a couple of drinks and good conversation is along the banks of Shukugawa in Nishinomiya. It is one of the most famous hanami locations in the country. And, the crowds prove it. Nishinomiya even features sakura on its manhole covers. Nearby Ashiyagawa is also a good location, but the river offers fewer places to sit and relax.
Traditionally, hanami and sake go hand in hand, but nowadays anything goes. If you arrive on Hankyu, shop at the Daiei supermarket across the street to the south of the station to save you lugging food and beverages. Various stalls are set up along the east bank of Shukugawa selling food and drinks (at inflated prices, as you would expect).
It usually rains, this time of year, and for hanami revellers, the rain is the enemy. Not only for the obvious reason—not that rain has ever stopped my friends and me from finding a covered spot at our selected hanami location to continue as planned—but also because the rain makes the blossoms fall sooner. Thus, shortening the hanami season. (It also takes the fun out of walking through the blossom rain.) Shukugawa has few covered areas, but I have seen some creative people sitting in the rain enjoying a less crowded and less noisy hanami.
If you are planning on going hanami-ing at night when the trees are in full bloom, or on a weekend, you may have to send someone ahead as bashotori (claim staker). I have used this opportunity in the past to enjoy the blossoms alone before everyone turns up and the blossoms are soon forgotten as drinks and conversations flow. 

Hankyu Shukugawa Stn is located above the river. From JR Sakura-shukugawa Stn, turn right after exiting the station to find the river.

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