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  • Writer's pictureKenny Wong

Celebrating the Transience of Nature with hanami

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Flocks of tourists are lured to Japan every year during the iconic sakura (cherry blossom) season. No matter how much planning goes into it, luck always plays a significant role when it comes to hanami (flower viewing).

Most of my dozen trips to Japan were planned adhering to the annual sakura forecast, yet I only encountered the spectacular blooms twice over the past decade. On a memorable hike near Nara to Yoshinoyama (Mount Yoshino) in April 2013, I came across a single shidarezakura (Japanese weeping cherry tree) in bloom. This very mountain is renowned as a spring destination with over thirty thousand cherry trees colouring the slopes and surrounding regions pink.

It may have been eight years since that failed attempt, but I still believe hanami should factor into everyone’s dream trip to Japan. Hanami is not just the observation of the beauty of nature. It is also to appreciate the life cycle of flowers as a perfect metaphor for the Japanese aesthetic concept of mono-no-aware.

Mono-no-aware, describing the flash of bittersweetness felt at the reminder of the beauty and briefness of life, comes from Heian period literature, and literally means "the pathos of things". The notion has its roots in the indigenous Shintō sensibility, which stresses the awe-inspiring dimensions of nature. The theoretician, actor and writer of the Noh drama Zeami Motokiyo (c.1363-c.1443) wrote that “the flower is marvellous because it blooms, and singular because it falls”. This signifies savouring the moment as the appeal experienced in it will never be the same. The cherry blossoms present a perfect example when they bloom intensely for a short period of time every year. Then the petals wither and fall, lining the streets and rivers like a layer of pink snowflakes. This is the unique vivid fragility of the flower captured between life and death. Every spring the cherry blossoms die, but they come back fleetingly once again each year to their unavoidable yet ethereal demise.

Outside the peak seasons in spring and autumn, there are many beautiful flowers and plants to be seen around the year. It is equally unforgettable to experience the tranquillity of ajisai (hydrangea blooms) during tsuyu (rainy season) starting mid-June, koke (moss, turf grass) in the summer, and ume (plum blossoms) over the tail end of winter to the beginnings of spring.

A trip spanning the sakura season is not always possible. When I travel after the Easter holidays, I always try to make a weekend trip to Fujisan (Mount Fuji) for the Fuji Shibazakura Festival. Held near Lake Motosu in Yamanashi prefecture, the foot of Mount Fuji will be adorned with almost 800,000 stalks of blooming shibazakura (pink moss), covering 2.4 hectares of land from mid-April to mid-May. Different species of moss phlox will be on display, painting the landscape along with tulips, anemones, and muscaris, making an excellent spot for photography. The lake is located on a plain, guaranteeing an unblocked view of Mount Fuji, creating the perfect backdrop for taking a shot of the flower scenery.

When my travels in May bring me to Kyushu instead of Tokyo or Osaka, I will always visit Kawachi Fujien (Kawachi Wisteria Garden). It is a private garden in Kitakyushu city in Fukuoka prefecture, famous for its 10,000 square meters area with 20 kinds of fuji (wisteria). The garden is seasonally opened to the public during the fuji season from late April to early May. The most popular spots in the garden are two 100-meter-long tunnels made of wisteria trees from white to dark purple varieties, and a group of large wisteria trees forming a sweeping roof of drooping flowers.

The rainy season may not be the most popular time of year to travel to Japan, but it is the perfect time to see the ajisai (hydrangeas). Historical and scenic Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture makes the best day trip destination from Tokyo. The city is home to several national heritage shrines and temples, including Hasedera, a Buddhist temple founded in 686. It is also known as Flower temple, with a great variety of seasonal flowers blooming in its gardens throughout the year. The temple is one of Kamakura's famous ajisai spots with over 40 species and 2500 hydrangea flowers.

While most tourists are not familiar with Ibaraki prefecture, it boasts one of the most famous flower scenes in all of Japan – the sea of rurikarakusa (nemophila, or 'baby blue eyes') at Hitachi Seaside Park. The park is easily commutable from Tokyo with an hour and a half one way. From mid-April to early May, millions of nemophila bloom on the Miharashi No Oka hill in the park. The never-ending carpet of blue flowers that flows seamlessly into the equally blue skies is a truly mesmerizing scene.

Let the tranquillity invoked by every chance meeting with seasonal flowers bring you a unique experience of Japan.


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