You might be asking yourself a few questions today. Things like, “Did I leave the gas on?” “How is it already February?” And, most pertinently, “Why is Stefanie talking about cherry blossom viewing when we’re still so far away from it?”
Originally, I was going to make a post about ume (plum) blossoms, as we’re in the right season for them. Ume blossoms, often overlooked in favor of cherry blossoms, have a lovely smell and help guide you through the last of winter into spring.
Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is all of my pictures of ume are terrible, and thus far in Kyoto there is one (1) tree that is blooming in Gosho. And that tree is surrounded by people with camera lenses three times the size of my head.
The other day a friend suggested we go up to the rural town of Ohara, a place in Kyoto that is technically still within the city limits but feels like it’s worlds away. Up in the mountains it’s several degrees cooler than in the city, and while tourists do hit up the place, it’s much quieter than some of the better-known spots in the city proper (Kiyomizu Temple comes to mind). Because of these reasons, I agreed, and away we went.
Little did I know that it was flower blooming season in the gardens of Ohara’s main attraction, Sanzenin Temple!
Hydrangea (or “ajisai” in Japanese) are flowers you can spot in several places in Kyoto, but Sanzenin is a lovely place to get as much viewing in as you like. As we went on a weekday there were only one or two other people in the garden, so we were able to bask in the flowers as long as we liked.
Funnily enough, I’ve been to Sanzenin a few times in the past, but always in the autumn. While the fall leaves and spider lilies are also nice up in this part of Kyoto, I’d never even realized the hydrangea were all over the place until this trip.
Mind you this is coming from someone who knows very little about flowers; the only reason I know these are hydrangea is because my friend kept calling them that all day. Still, I’m hopeful this means the knowledge will stick.
Now, why hydrangea and not another flower?
After checking out a few different sources (i.e. bothering my Japanese and fellow expat friends) I learned that hydrangea are a harbinger of summer. The reason for this is they bloom around the rainy season, or 梅雨, which comes right before the oppressive heat of August settles over the country.
Learn something new every day, eh?
We went during the first week of July and, as mentioned, during a weekday, which seemed the ideal time to take it all in without interruptions. For those of you who come during other times of the year, I recommend coming for Sanzenin Temple anyway! It’s a beautiful place with moss-covered gardens, a place to drink tea, and it’s a great chance to get away from the bustle of the city.
Ohara (and Sanzenin) can be reached by bus (No. 17) from Kyoto Station. You can also take the Karasuma Line to Kokusaikaikan Station and hop on bus No. 19 if you’re not a fan of buses (or want to check out multiple means of transportation, I guess). I’ll be digging more into Ohara in general in future posts, so keep an eye out!
Who here is familiar with cherry blossoms? Everyone? And we’re all aware of which country often gets associated with cherry blossoms, right? Cool.
Yes, cherry blossoms are a big thing here in Japan–scientists dedicate their time to figuring out when, exactly, the flowers will bloom in every specific part of Japan. They will also work out peak viewing times, so you can enjoy the blossoms/crowds at your discretion. People not only have parties underneath them but also splurge on seasonal goods– sakura flavored lattes from certain brand-name coffee shops, sakura flavored sodas, Japanese sweets shaped like flower petals, the whole nine yards.
Did you know that this doesn’t only happen with cherry blossoms, however?
Flowers are a big deal in Japan; up in Hokkaido, lavender is a huge hit in summer, drawing crowds galore to view fields of them. There are tulip festivals in the spring, and spider lily festivals in the fall.
Despite the fact that I know very little about flora (except that some of them are pretty and “I like the purple ones”), I’ve been drawn into this craze. Every spring, a friend and I make the trek out around Kansai to find the best spot to view wisteria, or in Japanese, fuji (ふじ）.
So what gives? Why do so many people rush all over Japan to get a glimpse of these flowers for the week or so they’re in peak bloom–fighting crowds, buying seasonal souvenirs and novelty items, attempting to snap selfies with these plants in the background? What’s wrong with going to a local botanical garden at your leisure and avoiding all the hassle?
…Well, nothing really, but keep this in mind:
With cherry blossoms, the flowers are seen as very transient. They bloom so briefly and are so susceptible to the lightest rain showers. People often view them as a symbol of a type of philosophy–life is short and bittersweet. Better to enjoy it while you can or, if you wish to go a more spiritual route on the matter, it’s better to learn that attachments to earthly things like this will only bring you suffering.
If you ask the average Japanese person why, of course, you’ll get a variety of much more mundane answers. “The flowers are beautiful!” “I go every year with my mom, so it’s kind of like a family tradition.” Then there’s my least favorite: “Well, Japan has four seasons.”
Siiiiiigh. Yes, yes it does.
At any rate, even if you’re not in Japan for cherry blossom season, keep an eye out for what flowers are blooming wherever you’re at. For example, during May, wisteria and roses are all over the place. If you google “Japan Rose Festival” you’ll find several sites in English offering various events, from Tokyo to Fukuyama.
Have you been to a flower festival in Japan? Or are you interested in checking any out?