Transcreating Tokyo, part 22 – Early spring and hanami

Takeo Funabiki explores the fleeting blossoms and the feelings they convey

By Time Out Tokyo Editors |

Famous British novelist T.S. Eliot may have written that 'April is the cruellest month', but besides literary interpretation, I think the instability of British weather cannot be denied. In April, just when you begin to feel like pottering around in the garden for a bit in the sun, black clouds may suddenly roll in and it'll start to hail. Such a drastic change is out of control.

In March in Tokyo, we have a similar situation. At the start of March, snow can fall, and temperatures reminiscent of the depths of winter may persist, but the end of the month brings blooming sakura and positive spirits. The magnitude of change in that one month is the most intense of the year. 

The fragrance of flowers starts spreading with the advent of the plum blossoms in February, but winter still remains. When you think 'when on earth is spring going to come?', the bonds of winter are loosened with a sudden strong warm wind blowing, known as 'haru ichiban' (spring first). Then, in March, the front of cherry blossoms, a climate phenomena typical of the Japanese archipelago and known as 'sakura zensen', starts marching upwards from the south.

The sakura advance across the country along lines of latitude, with slight variations based on regional temperatures. It's all about the blossom news: it doesn't matter if another big news story is dominating headlines across the world, NHK's top news story will always be where the cherry blossoms have bloomed now. There are some who may question that is wise, whether more important stories must be focused on instead, but as soon as mid-March rolls around, there is no topic which can beat the sakura. 

You might wonder whether this has always been the case, but actually, it's only been this way for the past 40, 50 years. During the now old fashioned All-Campus Joint Struggle League, the student protests and actions in the 1960s, I would be branded 'right wing' if I suggested to host a hanami. Before the war, the fallen cherry blossom petals were a symbol of the virtues of soldiers, that's why.

Nowadays, no one really thinks of these political motivations, and if you don't like the cherry blossoms, then you must not be Japanese. The eternal contrarian in me finds such an imposition quite totalitarian, and I feel doubtful towards talk of cherry blossoms now, but to keep things on track, let's continue with the standard topics of sakura, namely where in Tokyo is best for hanami. 

Where is good? No, I won't write about that, as features have been devoted to this on TV, in magazines and newspapers. You'd better refer to those. What I will say is that 'Sakura Fever' was established in modern Japan. However, I must note that when I was young, half a century ago, even if I wandered in a blizzard of cherry blossoms, along the banks of Ichigaya, I would never pass other people who were appreciating the flowers. Everyone would be hurrying along.

The famous passage of Motojiro Kajii's Under the Cherry Blossom Trees may read 'Dead bodies are buried under the cherry trees!', but apparently horse dung is best for sakura, rather than corpses. It is my annual function to go to Setagaya's Baji Koen ('horse affairs park'), which is close to the home I was born, but although I was deeply impressed by the heavy flower growth there, there weren't many people I could share this with. 

Schools may be famous spots for cherry blossoms, but even when nothing is buried beneath them, sakura are wonderful. For example, my old workplace of Tokyo University Komaba Campus also has stunning cherry blossom trees on the embankment surrounding the grounds. It was there that in the 1980s, when I was working at the university, that I invited my seminar students to a cherry blossom viewing party, but the evening was colder than expected, and I found myself in the awkward situation of shivering while eating oden and being wrapped up in cardboard.

Yes, in fact, when the sakura bloom, it's still cold. The flowers may be blooming and the entire thing is rather extravagant, but it would a misunderstanding to say it's suddenly warm. The staple food sold beneath cherry blossom garlands and at rural castle hanami spots is oden, a traditional winter warmer. Thus, although I'm not saying that because hanami is cold we ought to not be doing it, I would advise to at least properly take into account the cold. Don't forget your coat when going for an outdoor drinking binge, and if organising, please note the insulation properties of what you're going to be sitting on. 

As such, when writing about cherry blossoms, I inadvertently get excited. In any case, I named my firstborn 'Sakurako' (cherry blossom child), so even if I pretend to be sulk, I know that I actually love sakura. Nevertheless, as a sidenote, when I named my firstborn Sakurako in 1976, it was still rather rare, and many people questioned my choice of name.   

While April drags on, you gradually become tired of chasing all those flowers. There was an acquainted photographer who gave me a photo collection named 'Cherry Blossom Front' (Sakura Zensen), but when I think of it now, the question comes to mind on whether they didn't get bored midway through each year, while pursuing the blossoms.

The regular sakura, or what is popular as 'sakura' is of the Somei Yoshino variety, but once those have ended, the second batch of sakura is also superb. However, the plight of the second cherry blossom growth is that they come after the Yoshino type has bloomed, and thus, people may be slightly sick and tired of them, making them less appreciated. 

Before long, by the middle of April or earlier, the cherry blossom season will finish. Why did people look and wander with such fervour, and where have all those crowds of people gone? The following verse, 'Oitekibori', describes such a feeling. Watching and sending off the last cherry blossoms is somehow like the merriness of Edo's floating world, and the slight twinge of loneliness afterwards, a fleeting instant which you can feel in Tokyo right now. 

Hana tsukare

Oitekibori ni


- Mantaro


Flower exhaustion

they have left me all behind

abandoned, alone

- Mantaro


Takeo Funabiki
Cultural anthropologist
1948, born in Tokyo
1972, BA, University of Tokyo, Faculty of Liberal Arts
1982, PhD in anthropology, Cambridge University, Graduate School of Social Anthropology
1983, University of Tokyo, College of Arts and Sciences, lecturer
1994, Professor
1996, University of Tokyo, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, professor
2012, retired from the Graduate School, Professor Emeritus

Field work conducted in Hawaii, Tahiti, Japan (Yamagata Shonaiheiya), East Asia (China, Korea) and Melanesia/Polynesia (Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea). Professional interests include 1) mechanism of mutual interference of human culture and nature, 2) the representations of ritual and theatre, and 3) changes in culture and society that occur during the course of modernisation.