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Wednesday, April 5, 2000

Bacchanalian bliss under the blossoms of spring


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

Dozens of spring perennials are in bloom right now, but none are revered so much in Japan as sakura, or cherry blossoms. The pale pink blossoms hail the true arrival of spring, and their brevity (the shower of petals lasts about a week only) has symbolized the fragility of life for centuries.

This doesn't mean you're about to read a treatise on the beauty of sakura. There's a bacchanalian aspect of cherry blossom culture that's just as fascinating as the highbrow one, and even offers insight as to why sakura picnics in city parks are so rowdy. To escape those, try finding some quiet expanses of yamazakura (mountain cherry) to admire. Kyushu's highland sakura bloom after mid-April, and make for fabulous post-hanami peace.

I'd once thought hanami (cherry-blossom picnics) would be civilized gatherings of gentle folk sitting under trees writing poetry while uttering blissful "oohs" and "aahs." But the nearest I've come to such ceremony was hearing a drunken coworker bellow "wabi-sabi!!" at the top of his lungs -- referring, supposedly, to the Japanese concept of subtlety in all artistic things. People all around roared songs into portable karaoke kits and gulped down truckloads of alcohol. That's been my image of hanami ever since.

In fact, that's the way hanami was originally supposed to be. Back in the days before court nobles began holding dainty dos under the trees, cherry blossoms were symbolic of agricultural bounty. Branches of yamazakura were brought down from the mountains to decorate towns. Custom among rural folk was to drink, sing and generally make merry to ensure plenty of blossoms and a fruitful harvest.

By the early Edo Period, cherry trees began to be cultivated in cities and festivities took on more sophistication, especially among the samurai class. Sakura evolved into a national symbol of beauty and purity. Of course, iconoclastic novelists such as Ango Sakaguchi insist that this is all a lie: People always drank, fought and carried on under the cherry blossoms. They just chose to believe that the old days were more civilized, writes Sakaguchi.

Today, revelers still descend in throngs on parks with cherry trees, and are particularly fond of the big ones, with 1,000 to 3,000 trees. As in the past, the more people the merrier. Picnic favorites, warm clothing and tarpaulin sheets to sit on are essential, and cardboard boxes make for good insulation underneath. You'll also need a basho-tori volunteer to stake out a good site hours in advance and pitch your tarpaulin before the other blossom-hungry hordes arrive.

At night the blossoms in most parks are lit up from beneath by lanterns, and are eerily beautiful. This hasn't gone unnoticed by storytellers of the past, who have cooked up numerous spooky sakura tales. Novelist Motojiro Kajii wrote that their uncanny beauty, fecund smell and crooked roots must surely be nourished on unknown substances -- perhaps even a dead body buried under each tree. Horror stories tell of people going mad beneath cherry blossoms, causing superstitious travelers to avoid nights spent below them.

Parties and blossoms stretch through April, unless you live in Hokkaido, where sakura will bloom around mid-May. Yamazakura and other late-blooming sakura types can still be seen, so try heading for the highlands and cooler areas in search of them. Highly recommended for hundreds of established yamazakura, hiking and a pretty, artsy village is the Tsukahara Plateau in Kyushu's Oita Prefecture.

The plateau curves around Mount Yufudake, a steep volcanic mountain with spectacular westward views over Yufuin's lush valley, and east to Beppu and the ocean. On weekends, dozens of sprightly octogenarians march uphill and on weekdays, cheeky schoolkids call out "harro." At the top, the mountain is windlashed and wild. Mount Yufudake's foothills near Tsukahara are dotted with yamazakura, whose bold pink blossoms are expected to flower around April 20.

Hundreds of yamazakura cherry trees also line Route 616, parallel to the Oita Expressway, from which several roads lead to the farming and dairy village of Tsukahara. A number of inexpensive pensions, hot springs, galleries and workshops have sprung up here recently, and it seems set to become the sanctuary of choice for those who find Yufuin a little too popular on weekends. With its pretty gardens, winding lanes and picturesque white fences contrasting the rich green pastureland, Tsukahara looks almost European.

Yamazakura trees dot the local gardens, and one lunch spot, Yamaneko-ken, has tables and chairs set beneath cherry trees. Up the road, Milk-mura sells milk and ice cream made from local dairy milk. Stroll around looking at workshops making pottery, bread, dolls and more, and drop by the cafes. One of the friendliest cafes, with a diverse, original menu, is Donguri-jaya, (0977) 84-3123, at the entrance to Tsukahara. They make an impressive karubi donburi, or rice bowl topped with tender steak, served with salad, miso soup and pickles for 800 yen. The homemade desserts and glasses of local milk are popular too.

You may think you'd be sick of sakura by now, but these tender blossoms never last long enough to make anyone feel that way. Even if you indulge in several hanami hullabaloos and see some highland yamazakura, it'll all be over in a flash -- and you'll just have to wait again until next year.

Yufuin-Tsukahara Tourist Information Club (0977) 85-2254


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