Weekly Photo Challenge: Spring

This post is in response to the Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s theme is “spring“.

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In Japan, without the cherry blossoms, it’s not spring.

As nature transforms, so do we. Spring draws us outside. It re-energises us. Every year, after gloomy winter, I feel a change in the air. Walking down the street, a warm breeze brushing over my cheeks, sunlight sparkling throughout the trees, it’s like a sense of liberation. It’s about ‘now’ – being in the moment – and appreciating the finer things in life. For me, that is being able to enjoy the amazing wonders of nature.

One of the most memorable cherry blossom trees I’ve seen was in Miharu, Fukushima. Known as takizakura, which means “waterfall cherry blossom”, it is a GIANT of a tree! It’s over 1,000 years old, and is about 12 metres high. I love the character of the tree. From a distance, it’s quite bold and majestic. It demands attention… and gets it! Up close, it really does feel like you’re standing under a waterfall of petals! Then there’s the trunk… twisted, layered and wrinkled. It definitely shows its age. If only the bark could speak, imagine what stories it could tell us!

Takizakura Takizakura Takizakura Takizakura

Sakura: Short and Sweet

The cherry blossoms have almost all disappeared now. I feel like it was over before it even started! I guess that’s part of their charm – their beauty is fleeting. Seeing the petals fall off the trees and get swept away by the wind is always sad. Most years, the sun does a good job of bringing a much welcomed warmth to push out winter, but this year, the cold has persisted and the chilly nights are still lingering. The weather has been up and down, teasing us for weeks with a few warm days. I’ve only recently stopped using my heater. Hopefully I can put it away for good. Dammit, I’m ready for summer! … I might regret saying that come August.

Going snowboarding at the start of April meant missing the peak of the sakura in Tokyo. I had an awesome time in Hokkaido, so I don’t regret it at all, but it just shortened the already short time we have to see the flowers! To give you more of an idea on just how brief their life is… The season officially started on March 25. This is when the buds first started to open up. The peak was predicted to be April 5, but the forecasters can never be 100% accurate, and in the end, full bloom was declared on March 30. By April 8, about 50% of the petals had fallen, and by April 10 it was basically all over in Tokyo.

There are actually hundreds of varieties of sakura trees. Some bloom earlier, while others bloom well after the main varieties have long gone. Even though it’s already coming to the end of April, there are still one or two late blooming varieties that can be spotted here and there. The varieties differ not only by blooming time, but also colour, number of petals, shape of the petals and shape of the tree. And of course, depending on where in the country they are, they bloom either in March (southern Japan), April (central Japan) or May (northern Japan).

March 16 @ Setagaya

Setagaya blossoms
Kawazu-zakura: early spring bloomer

March 29 @ Naka-Meguro

April 5 @ Setagaya

Sakura-lined entrance
Sakura-lined entrance

April 6 @ Akiruno & Fussa, Western Tokyo

April 8 @ Meguro

April 10 @ Showa Memorial Park, Tachikawa

April 10 @ Koganei Park

April 12 @ Lake Sagami, Kanagawa

April 16 @ Setagaya

And So It Begins Again…

Back to school, back to school! It’s the first week of the new school year here in Japan. Every year, schools start with a 始業式 (opening ceremony) and 入学式 (entrance ceremony). Even though the school I teach at is a combined Junior High School and High School, they are considered two separate ‘schools’. The students physically stay in the same school, but things like their uniform changes – the girls wear a different coloured skirt, and the boys change the buttons on their jackets. The Opening Ceremony is for continuing students, which in my school’s case is JHS 2nd and 3rd grades, and HS 2nd and 3rd grades. At this ceremony, the new teachers are introduced and homeroom teachers are announced as well. While the Entrance Ceremony, held on the next day, is for students entering the new ‘schools’ – JHS 1st grade and HS 1st grade. All the parents are invited to attend and it’s much more formal and official. In the gym, which is decked out in red and white celebratory banners, the Principal says a (long!) speech, everyone sings the national anthem, the students sing the school song, the PTA says a few words, the homeroom teachers are announced, and the brass band performs while the students exit the gym at the end. It lasts about an hour, then everyone goes outside to take photos under the sakura trees! Last year the cherry blossoms peaked in March, so by the time the Entrance Ceremony came around, there were no flowers left on the trees – very unfortunate! Luckily this year, they bloomed a bit later, and there were plenty of flowers for all those photo hungry parents!

入学式 ' Entrance Ceremony'
入学式 ‘ Entrance Ceremony’
Red and white banner wraps around the gym
Red and white banner wraps around the gym
Students bow to the principal
Students bow to the principal
On stage: Principals on the left, PTA on the right
On stage: Principals on the left, PTA on the right. It’s more common to use traditional dates in Japan – so instead of 2014, it’s year Heisei 26.
Sakura-lined entrance
Sakura-lined entrance
View from above. You can just see some students having their photos taken.
View from above. You can just see some students having their photos taken.

Sakura Season Has Begun!

Yesterday, the cherry blossom season was officially declared here in Tokyo. Wohoo!! I’m so excited. It’s been a long, cold winter, with more snow than usual. The cherry blossoms are blooming later than normal this year because of that. The peak of the season is predicted to be around April 5. I will return from my snowboarding trip just in time for the peak it seems >_< Bad planning on my part!! But I already have a few hanami parties lined up so I will definitely be making the most of it.

At Yoyogi Park yesterday, the petals had just started to come through.

Yoyogi Sakura Yoyogi Sakura

At Yasukuni Shrine, they have set up a live camera to show the progress of the blooming!!

Check it out here >> http://www.yasukuni.or.jp/annai/sakuralive.php

The sakura have arrived!

One of the most magical things you can see on this planet is the blooming of the cherry blossoms, called sakura in Japanese. They are the national flower and symbol of Japan. Each year, at the end of winter, the pink buds emerge from the dark tree trunks. It is literally like warm, colourful spring pushing through from cold, gloomy winter. It doesn’t take long before the buds open into magnificent, attention-grabbing flowers. The soft, delicate petals are usually pink, white or yellow. Some trees droop down, creating spectacular passage ways. Others stand tall, reaching for the skies. And others burst outwards in all directions making giant sakura mushrooms. But, they are fragile, fleeting things. Within a couple of weeks, the winds blow the petals away making room for the new green leaves.  Some years, their lives are shortened even more by rain or snow.

The Japanese people have celebrated the sakura for years. They know a good thing when they see it! It’s tradition to get together with family or friends or colleagues and ‘picnic’ under the flowers. By picnic, I mean spread out a tarp, be merry and get drunk! They call this ohanami which translates as flower-viewing. There are plenty of family-friendly parks where kids can run around kicking soccer balls or flying kites. The park I went to the other day was a family park just like that. It wasn’t too far from my place, and I went there specifically because I’d read that it had 500 sakura trees. It sounded like it had potential to be amazing. And it definitely did not disappoint!!

I feel pretty stupid, but I can’t help smiling every time I see sakura trees. They just take my breath away. And, it’s not just because they are beautiful, but they also have a special meaning for me. Back in March 2011, the earthquake, tsunami and power plant disaster made my life come to a grinding halt. I had to relocate to Nagoya where I ended up staying temporarily for about 5-6 weeks. It was a stressful period, but as time went on things got easier. April came, as did spring… and the sakura. Seeing these gorgeous trees for the first time was like a symbol of new beginnings. It was literally a life metaphor… like the sakura that emerge from winter, we had emerged from a disaster. I knew that things were going to work out fine, possibly even great! And, this spring, my life changed again. I moved to Tokyo for a new job, a new home, a new life.  Life couldn’t be sweeter.

So, here are some snaps from my neighbourhood…

from bud to flower

 see-through petals

sakura stars

drooping sakura

streets of setagaya

streets of setagaya 2

sakura corridor

sakura closeup

tall sakura

enjoying hanami

sakura 5 petals

sakura park

sakura park 2

snowing sakura

park bench surrounded by sakrua

fallen petals