April 30, 2012

blossoms, early and late

It's time...


Sicily, March;

Rome, March;

Paris, March;

Dublin, April;

...and London, April.

It's been a while since I was here last. I was once again on the road, once again in Europe, for another wonderful trip of visiting so many amazing places and spending time with so many great people, about which I plan to write soon.

For about a month from the mid March, I was lucky to have warm weather almost everywhere I visited. Coming from Nagano where we were still buried in deep snow in March, I found it feeling more like summer than spring. And I saw lots of blossoms everywhere I went; more often than not I wasn't sure what they were, but they were all beautiful and invariably reminded me of cherry blossoms, one of the most beloved flowers - or possibly the most loved - here in Japan.

We had a surprisingly severe winter in many parts of the country this year, and the blossoms came to bloom later than normal in many places. But as April arrived, so did sakura - and I'd see a lot of beautiful photos of cherry blossoms everyone was posting on the Internet in Japan, excited about the prospect of seeing them myself when I go home later in the month.

The only problem was, there was no sakura in sight up in the mountains.
The blossoms were nearing to their end in Tokyo as I landed at Narita on a rainy morning in the mid April, but as I traveled north to Nagano, it became clear that the blossoms were not going to bloom anytime too soon, just yet.

It's not as if this was unexpected, though. My folks told me while I was away that it was still cold and snow wasn't completely gone. Nonetheless, I had spent a whole month enjoying the springy warmth and seeing pictures of sakura in full bloom seemingly everywhere in Japan, so this blossom-less landscape came as a sort of a let-down all the same.

But still, it was better to wait for the blossoms to come to bloom rather than to come home too late and miss them, I reasoned myself.
At this point the buds were still small and tightly closed on these trees in a small park up the mountains near us. Another couple of weeks to go, we thought.

A week or two passed, and sometime last week I went out for my appointment with my doctor. As we drove down the mountain and passed small towns, I was surprised to find the cherry blossoms there, nearly in full bloom. It was still pretty cold up at ours, and the mountains were resolutely brown around us, so I hadn't realize sakura was blossoming out there.
Most of the trees we saw were still touch early for the blossoms to be in full bloom, but some were, and we enjoyed a few glimpses of them as we headed home.
At this point, those cherry trees near our place up in the mountains were still full of buds and not flowers, although we did see the buds were larger and redder as we drove by. Not long now, I thought, excitement and anticipation growing bigger.

And yet, I didn't know it would be quite so soon, and it came almost as a shock when I went out to see the cherry trees everywhere were in full bloom this past weekend, even the ones near us up in the mountains, just a few days after my last outing.
The temperatures finally rose to 20C/70F-ish, and all the trees, which had patiently been getting ready to produce flowers, seemed to have decided that it warm enough for the buds to finally come to bloom. I, on the other hand, wasn't quite ready and felt kind of dazed to walk under the trees that were gloriously full of blossoms, all in full bloom.
...some of them were finished, even.
But good news is that there are so many kinds of cherry blossoms that come to bloom in different timings, you can enjoy sakura for a reasonable period of time even though the flowers stay on the tree only for a few days once they are in full bloom.
And bad news is - well actually, it was good news in the whole scheme of things - the cherry blossoms in the small park near our place were mostly the same kind (Somei Yoshino, one of the most common varieties in Japan), pretty much and all of them were now in very full bloom; mind you, they were all still buds only a few days earlier.

And as the rain was on the way according to the forecast, we decided that it might be our last chance to do our semi-customary hanami picnic.

So we gathered up what we had and put together a bento lunch for the following day - a holiday Monday.
If you are not familiar with hanami, it's a wonderful Japanese institution where we gather around to admire cherry blossoms, often over something to eat and drink. (To tell you the truth, blossoms can be optional for some folks who seem to regard hanami as a mere excuse to party - but that's that).

Last year, we went to a large park well known for cherry blossoms in our area, and I managed to fix a respectable bento lunch for the occasion (and well, a whole lot of sakura sweets over the period of two months).
But this year, I didn't have much time to prepare for a grand hanami bento, and ended up scraping together what we had at home.

Luckily, we received a large box of fresh bamboo shoots a family friend of ours had sent to us just a few days earlier, and my mother made a large batch of takenoko gohan the day before, along with a few other things.
So basically I just stuffed my vintage wooden bento box with these things, and threw in a few other things. Also included was some spring mountain vegetable tempura that another friend of my mother's shared with us the day before.

Together with some drinks (hot Japanese teas and fizzy drinks - no booze today!) and an assortment of snacks, we managed to pack a decent lunch I think, considering how little time we had to put everything together.
Now all we needed to do was to sit back and relax, enjoying the view and lunch al fresco.

Oh, almost forgot; I did make some little after-lunch treats!
I whipped up sakura cookies (in a cherry blossom shape, finished with sakura liqueur-flavored icing) and sakura mousse (made with kanten and also flavored with sakura liqueur, served with fresh strawberries). I must say I wasn't being very creative and settled for something very close to what I had made a year before, but these were very easy to make and light enough to come after a large meal, so I think they fit the bill nicely.

And after all, the star of the show was the blossoms - and I was just happy to be finally able to celebrate the arrival (officially!) of spring and admire the fleeting beauty of the small blossoms.
If I was to complain about one thing, it would be that over here I didn't seem to have a chance to see sakura under the clear blue sky this year. So far, every time I went out to see the blossoms it was overcast, and while it was a perfect day to sit outside and walk around today in terms of temperature, I couldn't help but wish it had been a sunny one. But I really shouldn't be complaining, I know.

And this isn't a complaint, but I wish I had had more time to experiment with sakura baking like I did last spring and the spring before the last. Maybe next year.
Overall, this year's sakura season, which arrived fairly late after a long winter, seemed to come all of sudden and will probably be gone all too soon. The wait is long, and as soon as it's come it's gone; we have to enjoy it while we can, like so many other things in life - and be grateful for the fact that we are able to enjoy it once again.

I hope you are all enjoying the new season wherever you are - hopefully with a lot of pretty flowers and good food! -cxx


Awfulknitter said...

At least you got to enjoy the blossom! The little tree in my garden just started to come into bloom, and we've had torrential rain for a whole week - the poor flowers haven't really stood a chance. The nice thing is though, that I know it will be back next year.

Winnie Lee said...

How blissful! Thank you for the beautiful pictures!!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful pictures! I look forward to your sakura posts every year! This year, I learnt the name Somei Yoshino from my mum:)

BunnyTwoShoes said...

I love Hanami... when I worked in Japan, my manager took me to a river that was lined with cherry blossoms. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It is so nice to have picnics with your friends too!

Mathilda said...

Thank you for all this meaningful considerations about hanami.

Jen Laceda | Milk Guides said...

I adore all your cherry blossom shots! I just had baby #3 and was indoors the last couple of months most of the time that I missed Toronto's "sakura" at High Park! So, no pictures for me...but I'm living vicariously through yours :) Happy Spring!

Shalum said...

all these flowers. japan is love!

La Tartine Gourmande said...

Lovely Chika. One day, I will be there ;-) and you will be my guide, right? ;-)

Picnic Lane said...

Stunning pictures!

Check out my blog. I'm a new food blogger from brisbane, Australia.


chika said...

hello all, thanks for your comments... hope you got to enjoy the blossoms where you are!

Awfulknitter - next year!

Bea - i'd be thrilled to! one day, soon... xx