By Alan Wood, March 8, 2015
Editor of Georgia Watchdog
As Macon’s cherry blossom festival fast approaches on March 19, I’m reminded of the connection to Japan that inspired this festival. Our festival, which includes 10 festival days spread over 19 calendar days ending April 4, is a major undertaking. It fairly qualifies as Macon’s single biggest and most ambitious event.
Macon has more cherry blossom trees than even Washington D.C., which has a famous, much larger festival of its own, also beginning in full swing this year on March 19 and extending until April 18. During that same period, Macon often can count on better weather — but we can also count on a limited connection with the Japanese origins of the festival, a link that Washington’s National Cherry Blossom Festival plays up big. Washington even goes so far as to call its festival alternatively by the Japanese name, Sakura Matsuri.
Having spent many years in Japan, I can see opportunities for using our festival to pay more homage to Japan, while enhancing the Japanese flair and vitality of our festival, much as D.C. does with its parallel festival. The Japan-America Society of Georgia, for example, not to mention our major local Japanese-owned employer, YKK, might be recruited to assist us in adding more genuine Japanese culture, activities and verve. We need it. Despite nice fresh features like the biergarten event this coming Thursday, Macon’s festival in other respects has gone a bit flat.
Some Japanese Cherry-Blossom Basics
In Japanese, the word cherry is Sakura, and festival is Matsuri, so combine those words for Sakura Matsuri, pronounced Sa-koo-rah Mot-soo-ree. The Japanese also have a word for the viewing of the cherry blossoms called Hanami. (Hah-na-mee), which literally means flower viewing. They even have a cherry blossom forecast on weather reports. The blossom forecast (sakurazensen, literally cherry blossom front) is announced each year by the national weather bureau, and is watched carefully by those planning hanami, as the blossoms only last a week or two.
Japan is a relatively small country that could fit entirely inside California, but it also stretches very far in the north from Hokkaido, to as far south as Okinawa. That’s a distance of 1,896 miles, meaning blossoms can begin in late March in warmer areas, and last until early May in the cooler north.
Unlike in Macon, most people in Japanese cities don’t have large yards with the opportunity for an abundance of their own cherry trees. Instead, there are large parks and temple grounds where people congregate near cherry trees while in bloom. People will go very early in the morning to claim a prime spot with a large blue tarp. Usually a young or new employee from a company is sent to grab a place the day before for the office crowd and guard it all day before the rest of the crew arrive after work.
You’ll see groups of students, some families, and also a lot of coworkers from the same section at a company. Then after work, the party starts as everyone arrives with food and drink. Celebrations will last literally as long as the blossoms remain on the trees. At most major Hanami venues, all the trees will be lit up so, the parties can last all night long. People sometimes leave in the early morning, heading straight to work. There are lots of public baths where people can shower and change clothes on the way. Many people get very little sleep this time of the year. The Japanese may seem a little reserved — but not during cherry blossom time, when the delicate beauty of the cherry blossoms seems to delight the Japanese sensibility like a powerful elixir.
Cherry Blossoms and the Japanese School Year
The Japanese school year and system are both similar to and different from from the U.S. year and system. Their primary schools correspond to our grades 1-6, with junior high covering grades 7-9, and high school, grades 10-12. But the Japanese school year begins in April, not August, as in Bibb. The first term runs from April 1 to around July 20, when summer vacation begins.
The Japanese start their school year in the spring because they view spring as the time when life starts anew. That’s a sentiment we can appreciate, because the Southland in the springtime is beyond compare to the other southern seasons in its freshness and beauty — as the world well knows from watching the Masters.
The Japanese summer break lasts around six weeks, followed by a second term running from early September to late December, with a two-week break for New Year’s. The third term runs from early January to late March, with around a one week break just in time for — yes, the cherry blossoms!
That also means only one week between grades. Incidentally, I think I prefer their timing to ours. It allows the school year to run all year long, with only a short break between grades. That means less chance for students to forget what they learned, as often happens here.
Early April there and here is also the time when cherry blossoms are most commonly in full bloom. So when people think about entrance to new schools and the start of a career, they often conjure up images of these beautiful blossoms. Many schools have cherry trees growing on their grounds, and parents like taking pictures of their kids entering school for the first time under the light-pink blossoms. In short, the cherry blossom is more culturally intrinsic in Japan than we can easily imagine, even in Macon.
Japanese Hanami is Closer to Oktoberfest than a Fair
Although there are festivals and parades in Japan as well, in modern-day Japan, hanami is almost exclusively a huge and often drunken non-stop outdoor party that goes on all day and night until the last blossoms fall. The alcohol laws are much less strict in Japan, and there are no laws banning drinking outdoors in parks. But rarely if ever do you see any drunken brawls or other problems you might associate with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for example.
The word for night viewing is Yozakura which literally means night cherry, and this is when most people attend. In case you’re wondering where do people go to relieve themselves of all that beer and sake, there are numerous public bathrooms scattered all over the parks. In fact, the park I used to go for Hanami parties was called Tsurumai, and it had at least five bathroom building around the park. The abundance of clean and safe public bathrooms is certainly something Macon could use at our parks. Although there are two port-o-potties at Spring Street, there is otherwise only one bathroom along the entire Ocmulgee trail, for example, at the Riverside Drive/MLK trailhead, and that is often out of commission.
The appreciation of flower viewing stretches back at least 1,300 years. In addition to cherry blossoms, there is also a great love of plum blossoms known as Ume. If you’ve ever eaten authentic Japanese food, perhaps you’ve imbibed some plum wine,or had Umeboshi which is a pickled cherry that is very salty. Like grits, it’s an acquired taste, and one I never developed. Originally, blossom viewing was something only the elite enjoyed, but by the time of the Edo period beginning in the 1600’s, many commoners began to join in the fun.
Today thousands flock to any open space they can find in parks during festival time. It’s almost a Panama City spring break atmosphere, except you’ll see ages ranging from infants to octogenarians, all enjoying themselves. The partying can go on very late into the night until morning. Most of these groups gathered on tarps all over the park are groups of coworkers from the same company or schools, but people still walk around and fraternize with others as well. There’s also usually music, fireworks, games, and other activities as well, though no fair rides like we have in Macon. Even your boss is likely to be there. Because alcohol is also plentiful, if you happen to tell your boss what you really think of him, that’s also considered acceptable, and once every one sobers up, all is forgiven. In Japan anything, said while drunk is soon forgotten and forgiven when sober. I’m not sure that quality is exportable, though.
Japanese Street Food at Cherry Blossom Festivals
What is a cherry blossom festival without lots of great food? The sheer variety of foods available in Japan at Hanami parties is staggering. Many people will bring their own coolers and even small grills to barbecue their own food as well or bring bentos which are boxed lunches. But there are also plenty of vendors selling all types of food and drink and this is called Yatai or street food.
Yatai is not food you would typically eat. Here in the U.S. things like cotton candy, giant corn dogs, elephant ears are a few examples of our version of Yatai. The Yatai vendors, not unlike their American counterparts, follow the festivals and event circuit all throughout the year. Since Japan has such a long history, and so many holidays, you’re guaranteed to find a huge festival somewhere every week of the year.
It’s unfortunate that most Americans have such a limited knowledge of Japanese cuisine, because it’s truly delicious. Besides sushi, teriyaki, and a few other dishes that purport to be Japanese, few Americans know more than a few of the thousands of Japanese dishes collectively known as Washoku. Not to be a snob, but of all the “Japanese” restaurants I have tried in Georgia since returning from Japan, most have proven disappointing. Only one in Atlanta tasted anything remotely like any Japanese food I tasted while living in Japan. All the rest were either unrecognizable or simply awful. Of course, I kept my mouth shut, because my friends thought it all divine. Luckily, I’m sufficiently skilled in the kitchen so that I can prepare it myself when a craving for the real thing comes on. My biggest problem is that some ingredients can be a problem to acquire at times. For example, fresh Shiso leaves,but I solved that by growing my own.
Chinese food was also completely completely transformed to appeal to American palettes many years ago. Japanese food has also transformed to the point that few Japanese people visiting would even recognize it as Japanese food, without first being told that it is “Japanese.” Most Japanese restaurants in Macon and all over Georgia I’ve visited are owned by Chinese and Korean immigrants who’ve cashed in on the Japanese food craze. I love Chinese and Korean food too, but they’re as different from Japanese food as Mexican is to Southern soul food. So it’s not surprising that it’s rare to ever find anything passable for someone looking for authentic cuisine. Sushi is certainly popular in Japan, but so are hundreds of other exquisite dishes that few people in Macon will ever get to try unless they cook it themselves, or venture to larger cities or Japan.
The sheer variety of Yatai vendors staggers the mind, but a few of my favorites include crepes, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, Kare Pan, yakisoba, tomorokoshi, and yakitori. It would take too long to explain all of these food types so instead I located a good source with photos and an explanation of twenty five of the most popular Yatai sold in Japan. And in case you’re wondering, American favorites like candied apples, cotton candy, popcorn, french fries, corn dogs, are all readily available as well.
Hanami Better Understood Through Video
No matter what I write about Hanami, it will never compete with videos or seeing it in person yourself. Suffice it to say that, like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, you can’t really ever explain it nearly as good through words as you can with a video.
I went to Youtube and selected a few that I think will give you a much better idea of the atmosphere. I’ll embed one video below, and provide some links to a few more for anyone interested.
To repeat and summarize, one way to describe it is a little bit like Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest combined, all outdoors under cherry trees. Another analogue: tailgating in the spring.
Hopefully this article will inspire the Cherry Blossom organizing committee in Macon to focus not only cherry blossoms, but also on the spirit of Hanami as well, which is missing, though I’m not really advocating all the noisy rides at the park, which, to me seem more like unwelcome side distractions. Every year in Japan, I and most others looked forward most to going to a nearby park, and just having fun socializing with friends and coworkers.
The events in Macon are so spread out, and so few have anything to do with the true spirit of joyful eating, socializing and drinking together, that I think we’re missing out compared to the myriad ways the Japanese celebrate this wonderful season of the year together.
What say you, Macon? We already have the basic organizational structure in place, just not a concept that seems to garner the public’s genuine enthusiasm in a way that would match a tailgating Saturday in the fall. Might a more robust Japanese-style Hanami be possible here in the beautiful Macon spring?