One early March morning, I notice sunlight peeking through while Rich is eating breakfast. I rip open the curtains. Pink! Not only is the horizon a lovely hue but also trees of pink now line my river. I had not realized that morning was coming earlier and earlier. The air smells wonderful. Cherry blossoms! Later that morning I hear pipes clanging, tools pounding, people talking. Across the river something is happening. I can see piles of stuff and lots of action. Within hours I can see something on the riverbank across from the apartment. That afternoon Etsuko san and I change our route and walk the bank to check out the Ohanami festival that has just been built. We also walk the tree lined side of the river. Everywhere is so beautiful.
Saturday comes. We jump on our bikes and head to Peace Memorial Park. We take our usual path but it is not usual. A big, pink, voluptuous canopy of pink blossoms encloses the path along the river. The blackness of the trunk make the pale blossoms pop. These do not feel like the fruit trees back home. Joy is in the air. Everywhere you look there are people picnicking under the beautiful trees. Some have the traditional bento box, others have a KFC bucket or a Mikey D’s bag. With the bloom of a blossom, ordinary has become joyful. The river dances through the city. Celebration is in the air.
We walk around the Peace Park. A place to memorialize a horrific human event is transformed by small pink blossoms. I am struck by what I see and hear. People enjoying each other, the outdoors, their food. I see a grandpa and toddler crashed on a blanket, his coat ensuring a cozy nap. I see young couples sharing their specially made bento boxes. I see shoes on the edge of the blankets. I see people gathering around the middle looking at each other, laughing, eating and talking. Anywhere that has a flowering cherry tree, there is picnicking underneath.
Picture taking. People are taking up close pictures of the cherry blossom. Like it’s the most precious thing in the world. They take pictures of their friends or family surrounded in branches of blossoms. These photos are being taken in earnest. It is strange to me. I really am a gaijin-a foreigner today. I want to ask, “What is all the fuss about? It’s just a tree. It’s just blossoms on a tree. They don’t even produce fruit for heavens sake!” It feels odd to me that the whole country is out and about looking and talking about the beauty of the blooming cherry tree.
The following day a new friend from England invites us to an impromptu Ohanami after church. We pick up a variety of libations and the complementary snacks from a Seven Eleven. Rachael knows exactly where she wants to go. It happens to be our river. We sit amongst the population, drinking our beer and eating dried squid, getting to know each other. We aren’t sitting on a blanket under a tree. But no matter. Where ever you look you can’t help seeing cherry blossoms. All around us families and friends were doing the same. Dusk falls and we say our goodbyes. On the way home Rich takes an early turn and I know where he is headed. The Shukkein-the Samurai garden. The cherry blossoms are lit up. People are streaming in and out. It is magical. Rain is in the air so we savor this warm, beautiful evening. Back on the bikes, we head home. Again, right before we get home, he takes another detour. The aroma of nikuyaku-meat grilled on an open flame, hits me and I know why we have taken this detour. My little path along the river has been transformed into “the place to be”. No one could be unhappy here. Children laughing, people talking and singing loudly are all evidence of a culture enjoying this moment in time. Here too the trees are lit. Small tatami dining stalls are filled with people eating and drinking. Children are playing games. Luckily they are selling meat on a stick. That night pink flowers and picnics fill my dreams.
And then it rained.
I stand at my window watching sheets of rain pound the blossoms. The injustice of this is compounded by the news back home of heartbreaking drought. Through the downpour the pinks seem to vibrate their color. I can’t stop looking out. It is so beautiful. I am beginning to understand the big deal. I look at my calendar. I have booked myself solid. Even if I wanted to, I have no time to visit the flowers.
I find an opportunity. My new conversational English group is meeting this week. We can do Ohanami instead of meet around my kitchen table. I buy a blanket. Together we walk over to the Ohanami festival. Again I am struck by the sights and sounds of joy. School is on break so there are people of every age here. Portable barbecues, blankets, and food make you want to be a party crasher. The leader in our group finds a spot on the upper bank. Everyone has brought a little something to share. They appreciate my blanket for the occasion. With purpose and poise the ladies put their treats in the center, and then look around. They talk about the hue of each tree, the amount of blossoms, the damage of rain. They talk about memories of Ohanami past. We name our group Ohanami in honor of our first meeting. With joy in their eyes, my new friends thank me for sharing this special time.
Every night for three weeks we see, hear and smell Ohanami going on across the river. The lights glow amongst the blossoms. The smell of grilling meat and vegetables advertise the party. Spirited singing and laughing goes until eleven o’clock at night. Joy is in the air. It causes great hunger pangs. I yearn to sit and share Ohanami with all I love. This is the point of Ohanami: be present in this moment. Stop and look, for tomorrow it may rain. In doing Ohanami, relationships are built, fed, strengthened.
The Japanese really know how to celebrate the blooming of a tree.
*said by author Martha Beck