寝心に花を算へる雨夜哉

My sleepy mind

Counting cherry blossoms

A rainy night

Haiku from master Issa Kobayashi dedicated to the sakura

Tokyo is often described as fascinating, fast, different, vertical, overwhelming, oppressing…but treats like “beautiful” or “pretty” normally remain elusive. Still like all big cities it also has gorgeous spots, and the neighborhood of Nakameguro  during the sakura season is one of the best ones I have seen in the capital of Japan.

Sakura (桜; in hiragana さくら) is the flower of the Japanese Cherry tree and it is also used in a wider sense to name the moment when the cherry trees bloom. The sakura is one of the main national symbols of Japan and can be found on the 100 yen coin. One reason for its importance in Japanese culture is because it is a metaphor for the cycle of life according to Buddhism: continuous transformation during its short period of existence, fleeting and frail beauty that we should appreciate and understand in each of its stages. For centuries and till today the sakura has been a recurring inspirational motif in all types of artistic and cultural works: paintings, poetry, literature, etchings, furniture decoration, traditional folk songs…but also in more contemporary art expressions like cinema, manga, anime and pop songs.

The first cherry blossoms appear in early February at the subtropical archipelago of Okinawa, in the southern part of the country. Then the sakura travels up north throughout Japan. In Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara the flowers usually bloom at the end of March / beginning of April. Then the last stop is Hokkaido, the northernmost island, by mid May. Every year when the sakura approaches, TV stations and newspapers follow it by showing the Sakura Zensen – literally sakura front – , a map showing where the cherry blossoms have already bloomed and when it is expected to happen in other areas. Since the whole blooming cycle is very short -just a couple of weeks- planning in advance is essential to be able to see it at its best. Here is the forecast for 2013 and here is the famous list from the Japan Cherry Blossom Association with the top 100 spots to see the sakura around the country. My 3 favorite places from that list are Odawara castle, Nara Park and Arashiyama area in Kyoto.

Hanami (花見) -which translates as “flower viewing” -is the secular Japanese tradition of enjoying the beauty of the sakura  and continues to this day. It is believed it started during the Nara Period – s. VIII b.C. – among the higher classes, spreading to the rest of the society soon after. In the beginning it was the plum blossom –ume (梅)- that people admired but some decades later it was replaced by sakuras and cherry trees were planted all around the country for pure ornamental reasons (as they give no fruit). As it has been happening for hundreds of years, 21st century Japanese people await eagerly the sakura season. When it arrives they flee to the parks and temples in the thousands to eat, drink and picnic under the blossomed trees. During the weekends many of them stay until late at night enjoying the  yozakura – night hanami – when paper lanterns are lit for the occasion. Most of the Japanese people I know consider the sakura to be the most beautiful moment of the year and hanami their favorite activity, although some prefer the autumn when the leaves in the trees are full of vibrant colors.

The most popular and usual places to enjoy the sakura in Tokyo are the parks, particularly UenoYoyogi and Shinjuku Gyoen. They are all big spaces with countless cherry tress and they get ready for the massive crowds with food and drink stalls, souvenir shops, lanterns… creating a lively atmosphere. Despite their beauty I found them a bit too crowded with both locals and tourists. I enjoyed myself more when we went to the smaller but cozier Kinuta park for hanami. There was plenty of people but it was not too cramped and almost everyone was Japanese, which made it a bit more special as you felt part of the daily life of the city for one day. While we were sitting relaxed in the middle of the park we saw a couple of Domino’s Pizza delivery boys and to my surprise (and joy) it was possible to order a pizza then and there. They marked your position in a GPS they carried and your smoking hot pizza was delivered in half an hour. It definitely was a brilliant idea and they were quite a success.

But let’s go back to Nakameguro. Nakame, as Tokyo people call it, is a quiet residential neighborhood that has become one of the trendiest places in the city to go for hanami especially for people in their 20s and 30s. Its moment of glory occurs during the final part of the sakura – called chirisakura – when the petals of the flowers start to fall. What makes it so special is the presence of the Meguro river along the main street. The riverbed is confined into a narrow canal with high concrete walls on either side. These are topped by a metallic handrail from where the creepers descend to touch the river. On both sides of the canal there are dozens of robust cherry trees leaning towards the Meguro as if they wanted to take a peek at the water. The branches from the trees on both shores cross in the air forming a natural tunnel under which the river flows. When the sakura arrives the naked branches suddenly explode with life and the cherry trees seem to bend under the weight of thousand of petals. There is an unforgettable moment when you discover that the water of the Meguro has almost disappeared and all you can see is a carpet of white and pale pink petals that flows peacefully stream down.

When the wind blows the air fills with petals and all around is white as you were under a Siberian snowfall. This always brings huge smiles and even screams of joy from the Japanese girls – sugoi! sugoi! -. The narrow pedestrian street is full of all sort of restaurants, from small izakayas (Japanese style taverns  to Italian and French places. In some of them there are tables with river views but they are often booked up to 6 or 7 months in advance. The restaurants set food stalls and tables in the street helping to create a lively atmosphere. Late in the evening, when the sun has set and the lanterns are lit, is the most romantic moment of the day. If you happen to go to Tokyo too late for the sakura Nakameguro offers you a second chance: following the river a few hundred meters down the street there is an area with the so-called yae-zakura, dark pink cherry blossoms that bloom a couple of weeks later than the traditional sakuras.

The sakura has arrived to Nakameguro in 2013 (Photo by Naomi Hatta)

The sakura has arrived to Nakameguro in 2013 (Photo by Naomi Hatta)

Practical information:

- The closest tube station is Naka-Meguro, on the Tōkyū Tōyoko and Tokyo Metro Hibiya lines.

- Some restaurants recommended by my favorite food spy Miss NH:

Shimizu: cozy and friendly mizu-taki restaurant.

>Yakitori Akira: as the name implies it is a yakitori restaurant. Nice atmosphere but can get a bit smoky (remember than in Japan it is still possible to smoke indoors in restaurants).

Hashidaya: they cook chicken in all sort of ways. Great service and good food. It is quite popular.

Da Isa: sells an extremely popular pizza by the slice. Queues tend to be massive.

Thanks to Aiko Yokozuka for letting me use a couple of her pics and to Naomi Hatta for all her help and this year’s pic.

This post is dedicated to my daughter Sakura

A spanish version of this article has been published in the cultural magazine Jot Down

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