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Saturday, April 7, 2007


The short-lived cherry blossom -- Japan's national identity

The most beautiful time to be in Japan is right now -- cherry blossom season. Oha-nami cherry-blossom-viewing parties are taking place everywhere, and you don't need an invitation to go to one.

Zen daiko club
The zen daiko club practices under the cherry blossoms on Shiraishi Island. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

As a matter of fact, almost anything you do, as long as it is under a cherry tree, is considered ohanami, (flower-watching).

Stroll along a cherry tree-lined road, and you can say you have done ohanami.

Take your English class outside to read poetry under the cherry trees and you've done ohanami. All you have to do is find a cherry tree and claim it as your own. But hurry, because the trees only bloom for two weeks.

The cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan and for Japanese it is part of their national identity. This brings up some important questions.

Which part of the cherry blossom do they identify with -- the petals, the stem?

Can the Japanese really have a national identity only two weeks long? I guess you have to be Japanese to understand.

With just two weeks to enjoy the festivities, I suggest you get out there and start partying with the blossoms -- your buddies -- right now. But here are a few things to keep in mind.

Be sure to take a vinyl sheet. In the West, we tend to take a nice soft blanket to sit on when we go on a picnic, but the Japanese prefer a large, blue, crunchy, plastic sheet.

The Japanese are champions at matching plastic with nature, so it was determined a long time ago that blue vinyl matches the pink blossoms better than any other color.

You may think it feels more like a campsite as you can feel every stick and pebble underneath the plastic, but don't worry. The Japanese will also bring zabuton pillows to sit on, so you can sit seiza style.

Although sitting seiza may be worse than sitting on pebbles, you probably won't have to worry about it after enough drinks.

And remember, do not, by any means, step on this godforsaken vinyl sheet with your shoes! Shoes are to be taken off and lined up neatly on the ground next to the sheet.

There are advantages to vinyl sheets, however. They are easy to clean up spills on, and they are much easier to flick ants off of.

Oh come on now, don't try to tell me you don't take part in some good "bug flicking" now and then. You see an ant, you ready your thumb and index finger, you line up where you want to launch the little blighter, and FLICK!

This common form of live insect removal is much easier to perform on a nice slick vinyl sheet. None of those failed flickings that happen when the little buggers hold on to the threads of the blanket with all eight legs.

On my planet, the United States, there is no way they'd let you drink outside in public and share your national identity with the trees. But the Japanese acceptance of alcohol is the very reason people in Japan can identify, on a national level, with the little pink blossoms.

Beer, sake, umeshu, shochu, and chuhai all contribute to making the cherry-blossom season the most loved of all seasons. It's a time of year when everyone experiences, all at once, a bout of national happiness and gratitude.

So get out there and drink some sake, bond with the blossoms, and flick some ants! Love Japan for what it is.

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