Thursday, February 28, 2013

Dreaming Of Sakura...

Little TF, Mr. TF, and I leave Japan with a mixture of sadness and peace.  Sadness, because the life that we spent three years building is over.  Peace, because we know that, in living here, we did our best.  Little TF and I saw just about everything on the island of Honshu that there was to see.  Mr. TF covered Okinawa for us.  I took a baby TF on every trip that I took- a port call visit to see Mr. TF in Thailand, a girls' trip to Seoul, a nuclear evacuation to Guam and the States, and a sightseeing trip with my mom and brother to Taipei.  We celebrated the ends of deployments with family trips to balmy Vietnam and Malaysia, and choked on putrid, chilly smog in Beijing. Mr. TF flew earthquake relief missions to the Tohoku region and joined the Australian military for exercises in the Outback.  Little TF made special American and Japanese friends at her preschool, and stole the hearts of our neighbors.  I did my best to learn how to live in our neighborhood and learn (very poor) Japanese.  We leave with full hearts, grateful for the resources and incredible opportunities that we were given to explore our corner of Asia.  We set our faces towards our homeland, with no regrets about our time in Japan.

 I leave Japan, though, with one yearning unfulfilled...I will not see the sakura bloom this spring.  If you're in Japan at the end of this March/April, would you go see some cherry blossoms for me?  I have two favorite places that I think you'll really like.

My first favorite place for ohanami, or flower-viewing, is really any local park in Japan. On the weekends, the parks will be packed; to avoid the enormous crowds it's best to go during the weekdays.  Everyone with a lunch break will still head out to relax under the fluffy white trees, but there will be more space to stretch out and enjoy the views.

To properly celebrate ohanami, a picnic is a must.  I recommend cherry blossom tea from Lupicia, fresh strawberries, and some sakura mochi, of course.  Toss in a couple bento boxes and a blanket, and you are all set!  

As you lounge, munch on snacks, and watch the wind swirl delicate sakura petals into the sky, don't be surprised if you are invited to join one of the local groups of partygoers.  In fact, as a foreigner (especially if you are female), you can pretty much count on it.  Ohanami seems to loosen up the normally formal and reserved Japanese and bring out a surprising amount of English-  perhaps it has something to do with the copious amounts of beer that go hand in hand with ohanami parties.  

On one particularly memorable day, my friend and I were invited to join a group of bamboo flute students and their teacher.  The men were taking a break from their class to appreciate the sakura.  After plying us with sticks of yakitori (grilled chicken) and Sapporo beers (yes to the chicken, no thank-you to the beer), the class got up and gave us an impromptu concert under the trees.  The haunting, breathy notes of the bamboo flutes, played to the tune of Amazing Grace; caught up by the breeze to dance with the cherry blossom petals, remain one of my most special memories of Japan.  

So grateful that they shared their day with us.
The sheet music for the bamboo flutes

You have to head to Tokyo for my other favorite sakura-viewing location- Yasukuni Shrine.  Yasukuni enshrines the over two million souls of those who died for the imperial family of Japan, including women, students, soldiers, and kamikaze. As such, it is also Japan's most controversial shrine.  Yasukuni Shrine is also of note for another reason...Tokyo's official Sakura Tree is located within the shrine's environs.  Tokyo's cherry blossom season does not officially start until this tree is in bloom!   

Go at lunch time and grab food at one of the many booths that crowd the avenue below the shrine. I recommend the takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and sakura-flavored ice cream!

Yasukuni's massive, torii-gated entrance

Pass through the shrine's gates, which are crested with the Imperial Chrysanthemum, and walk into a dream.  Every tree inside the gates is a sakura tree, and their delicate pink clouds fill the entire space.  The cherry blossom- which symbolizes the beauty and fleetingness of life- is also a metaphor for the kamikaze pilot, whose brief life was short, but made beautiful in his service to the Emperor.  During WWII, the Japanese government even propagated the idea that cherry blossoms were the reincarnated souls of dead soldiers.  

You can't miss Tokyo's Official Sakura Tree- it stands next to the shrine's Noh stage and is surrounded by a bamboo fence and photographers.

After you leave the shrine, stroll back through the torii gates to the bottom of the avenue, and then head up the bridge and cross over the street to the Chidorigafuchi Senbotsusah Boen gardens and surrounding moat.  Expect this park to be packed at all times during cherry blossom season.  

To escape the crowds, rent a boat and drift under the sweeping sakura branches that dip into the water.

 So, Japan, this is the end.  Thank-you for teaching me to appreciate the moment through tea ceremony. Thank-you for giving me a small taste of what it feels like to be a minority- I will take that greater awareness to my own country.  You showed me, through the earthquake, that life is a gift and can end at any moment.  I will always be grateful that you send me through the rest of my life with the knowledge that nothing truly worth doing is easy.

I promised Little TF that I will bring her back to visit her early childhood, someday.  Preferably after you get that Tokai Earthquake out of your system.  So I do not say sayonara- good-bye.  Instead, I leave with mata oai shimasho- see you, again.  

A special thank-you also goes out to my English students, and one very dear friend (you know who you are).  Thank-you all for being my fact-checkers, explaining Japanese customs and ways of thinking, and making sure I got to where I needed to go.  You taught me more than I could ever teach you.  

Yasukuni Shrine is accessed via Kudanshita Station on the Hanzomon, Tozai, and Shinjuku Subway lines.  Boat rentals in Chidorigafuchi Senbotsusah Boen are daily, from sunrise to sunset, and go from early April to late November.  

Disclaimer:  I do my best to make sure all my information is accurate.  However, details may change or I may just be flat-out wrong.  Please let me know if something needs a correction.  Thank-you!