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Saturday, April 7, 2001

JAPAN LITE

One with nature beneath the blossoms


It's the cherry-blossom season, and you know what that means -- we no longer have to look at those silly purple cabbage plants that have grown into conehead spectacles begging to be trodden down by a loose hippo. Yes, Japan's winter pallor will soon be infused with the colors of spring: pink "sakura" (cherry blossoms) fire engine-red "chew lips" (tulips) and house lizards with metallic blue tails.

It's a time when the ultranationalists polish their behemoth trucks and do sound checks to make sure you can hear them all the way down in Okinawa. It's the time of year when everything in Japan starts anew: the school year, jobs and added trash pickup regulations. But most importantly, this is the season when Japan erupts into fits of karaoke and dance under the cherry trees in a unique juxtaposition of humanity and nature. Even grandmothers dance under the trees.

Cherry-blossom viewing, an event that exudes that all-encompassing national "wa," is a mandatory event and at this time of year, you will find every good Japanese under a cherry tree.

Cherry trees are not so easy to find, however. They are never planted in convenient places. Instead you have to go to them. This is fine for the Japanese, because they love an excuse to get together with 5,000 of their closest friends and go somewhere. Stage an event, and the Japanese will come. Hoards of people flock to places where cherry trees have been planted: parks, shrines and temples in the mountains.

It's hard to know exactly when the trees will blossom. Cherry blossoms open silently and stealthily, requiring people to listen to enthusiastic meteorologists give cherry blossom reports on TV, tracking the national flower as it blossoms first in southern Japan in Kyushu and slowly sweeps north to Hokkaido.

"The cherry blossoms have opened 10 percent in Kyushu," gushes a local weather lady on TV. "They should reach 20 percent by Wednesday and 'mankai' (full bloom) by next Monday at noon."

I don't need to watch the TV to know when the cherry blossoms reach mankai, however. I have noticed that when the blossoms have completely opened up, they emit the music to "Pomp and Circumstance."

In aristocratic times, people used to write poetry under the cherry blossoms, but this has fallen out of favor as it is considered way too peaceful. Now, people prefer karaoke, a form of lung strain that results from attempting to sing impossibly high notes that are then broadcast into nature by way of a sound system. Pity the poor bird who has built a nest in a cherry tree.

Although people think of cherry-blossom viewing as a way to get back to nature, I assure you that nature has already escaped and migrated to a safer, quieter place even before your picnic riot arrives, with electric cords, cold food and vinyl sheets. Even the ants take cover.

Besides, you're not really in nature -- you're on it, under it or between it. First you put down a vinyl sheet to protect you from the ground, that evil piece of nature that soils clothing. There you sit on nature and eat your cold food. The cherry trees are above you, so you are sitting under nature drinking your sake. Under the trees and on top of the ground puts you between nature, but you'll never really be in nature -- nature has already fled.

Finally, after a couple of weeks, when the cherry trees have had it up to their buds in revelry and the national flower has had all the patriotism it can bear, it throws off its petals in disgust.

Only then, in a final exhale of wa, do people take the hint and go home.



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