Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Youtube Tokyo Hanami Party 2009

The 2nd Annual Tokyo Youtube Hanami Party was held Sunday March 29th in Yoyogi Park. 

A number of Youtubers located in Tokyo and elsewhere gathered in Yoyogi Park – the park next to the Goth Maids and the dancing Rockabilly Elvises.

Hanami is the Japanese tradition of gathering under cherry blossoms to eat, drink, and be merry.

We had KFC chicken, Krispy Kreme donuts, ramen, beer, and Chu-Hi. 

Here people talk about what they like about the Hanami tradition.

Also check these videos from last year’s event:

Pre-Youtube Hanami in Ueno Park at night:

Post-Youtube hanami at a Hub Pub in Shibuya:

April 7, 2009 Posted by | 2008, 2009, beer, Blogroll, cherry blossoms, culture, drinking, hanami, japan, japanese culture, party, sakura, tokyo, TokyoCooney, travel, video, vlog, youtube, Youtube Gathering | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sakura – Japanese Cherry Blossom Montage Video

Sakura – Japanese Cherry Blossoms have been a part of Japanese culture for over a thousand years. They’re the subject of countless poems from waka to haiku.

The Short Happy Life of the Cherry Blossom

This is a photo montage I actually put up a year ago but never made public. It contains shots that I have taken over the years in different locations of sakura. You’ll see scenes from Tokyo, Kyoto, Kamakura, Himeji and few places you may not be aware of such as Ofuna and it’s giant Kannon statue. I put in a few Japanese poems to go along with the photos.

The geisha are from the Miyako Odori which is an annual geisha pulbic dance performance in Gion.

Music by the Secret Commonwealth:

The Secret Commonwealth

March 30, 2008 Posted by | Blogroll, cherry blossoms, geisha, hanami, japan, japanese culture, Kyoto, montage, music, nature, photographs, sakura, secret commonwealth, spring, tokyo, travel, video, vlog, youtube | 2 Comments

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring

Japanese Plum Blossoms Herald the Coming of Spring
Before the Cherry Blossoms there were the Plum Blossoms

White Plum Blossoms signal the coming of Spring

“The Cherry may be the prettier of the two; but when once you have seen the red Plum-blossom in the snow at the dawn of a spring morning, you will no longer forget its beauty.”
Fujiwara no Kinto (996-1075)

With the coming of Spring, all of Japan becomes very vigilant and watchful. They’re not watching for any suspicious North Korean vessels in their waters, but for the first signs of the blooming of sakura – cherry blossoms. For over a thousand years, cherry blossoms have played a large role in the lives of the Japanese mainly as an excuse to party. Hanami is the name for these cherry blossom viewing parties which involves plopping a blue tarp down under some blooming cherry trees and preceding to get sloshed amidst the pink foliage.

However, long ago, it wasn’t the cherry blossom that held the hearts of Japanese in thrall. It was the diminutive and demure plum blossom (ume) which moved poets nimble hands and made emperors weep. Plum blossom hanami was one of many customs that came from China during Japan’s developing phase. The plum tree was not originally an indigenous plant in Japan but was brought over from China. It quickly took root, though, in the fertile soil and imagination of Japan.

Plum blossoms are seen in Japan as the heralds of Spring, the restrained forerunners to the bold cherry blossoms. They typically bloom from mid-February to mid-March before making way for the grandstanding cherry blossoms.

Plum Blossom Maidens at Mito’s Kairaku-en Garden

The cherry blossom was said to represent a woman’s beauty while the plum blossom was said to represent her purity.

Plum Blossoms near Mt. Mitake east of Tokyo

Plum blossoms were associated with literacy and intellectual pursuits. An old Chinese verse runs:

When literacy is loved
The plum blossoms will open
When learning is prohibited
The plum blossoms will close.

Plum tree blooming over the thousands of ema prayer boards left by worried students at Yushima Tenjin Shrine in Tokyo

One of the Plum blossoms greatest patrons was the noted scholar Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903).  He was a scholar and Imperial advisor before his downfall. When he was exiled from Kyoto to a lonely island, legend says his favorite plum tree uprooted itself and flew to his place of exile to comfort him. Later, Michizane was deified as a Shinto god of learning and shrines were erected to honor him. Plum trees are often planted at his shrines which bloom over the thousands of prayer boards known as ema left by students seeking Michizane’s aid in passing their exams.

Patron of Plum Blossoms and Entrance Exams
The scholarly deity Sugawara-no-Michizane

Sugawara-no-Michizane (845-903) was Japan’s Man for all Season in the 9th century. After his death, he became the Most Unfriendliest Ghost. In life, Michizane was a gifted scholar, poet, and politician. He earned accolades and titles but also the animosity of his rivals. The powerful Fujiwara family who practically ran the country did not like the influence Michizane had over Emperor Uda. When Uda retired, as was the fashion, they poisoned the new Emperor’s ear against Michizane claiming he conspired to supplant him. The young easily-swayed Emperor gave heed and had Michizane exiled.

Michizane died only a few short years later, heartbrokened by his fall from grace. Sometime afterwards, a number of calamities struck the capital in Kyoto. Lighting struck the Imperial Palace, the Emperor’s sons died mysteriously while plague and drought stalked the land. It was believed by many that Michizane’s unhappy spirit had become a goryo – a vengeful spirit – and was now enacting his revenge for his wrongful exile. To appease his angry spirit, a shrine was built in his honor and his titles were restored to him. Later he was elevated to deity status as the god of calligraphy and learning known as Tenjin.

Since Plum blossoms were his favorite in life, they are always planted at his shrines. They come into bloom at the same time the ema prayer boards multiply at his shrines from students praying for his assistance with their entrance exams.

Plum blossoms are smaller in size and therefore do not cover their branches to the degree that cherry blossoms do. Plum blossoms, however, have a fragrant scent unlike their odorless successors the cherry blossoms. This scent has been popular theme for a number Haiku poems from famed poets.

Plum Blossoms at Kairaku-en Garden in Mito

Scent of plum blossoms
on the misty mountain path
a big rising sun
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Great moon
wrapped in plum scent
all mine
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

Far away the water flows
Past the plum-scented village.
Shohaku (1443-1527)

Plum Wind
Fragrance alone, I thought
Was the wind’s burden,
But petals too
Are circling the plum garden.
Okuma Kotomichi (1798-1868)

Kairaku-en Garden
A Benevolent Lord’s Gift to his People

Kairaku-en is an unique garden park, not just for it’s three thousand plum blossom trees and elegant manor house but for its history of being one of the few gardens of Old Japan which was open to the general public. The lords and samurai of Old Japan built lovely gardens for themselves and their associates but they were off-limits to the common folks.

The Mito province where Kairaku-en built was blessed with two great lords who cared about the welfare of commoners. Mito Mitsukuni (1628-1700), the secord lord of Mito, was greatly concerned about the administration of justice and the abuse of power. He used to travel about in secret to observe administrative authorities to make sure they did not oppress the people under them. Stories, books, and television shows have popularized his life and made him virtually a household name.

The ninth lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki (1800-1860), was of the same vein as Mito. He constructed an enormous park encompassing over 130,000 square meters in which he had more than 3000 plum trees planted. In a sharp contrast of protocol, Nariaki threw the doors open wide for all to enjoy hence the name – “Kairaku-en” (“the garden for sharing pleasures with people”).

So while the cherry blossom has long dominated the scene and continues to do so, the plum blossom still holds it own with its own grace and charm. Without the plum blossom and the tradition of hanami (blossom viewing) brought over from China along with the tree itself, there may never have been any cherry blossom tradition and Japanese Spring would be a quieter and duller time than it is today.

Plum Blossoms in the heart of Tokyo

Plum blossoms:
My spring
Is an ecstacy

On the back of the mirror,
A spring unseen,
A flowering plum-tree.

Plum-blossoms everywhere,
I should go south,
I should go north.
Yosa Buson (1716-1784)

Harbingers of Climate Change?
Early blooming plum blossoms

Due to the unnaturally warm weather in Japan this year, plum blossoms bloomed in certain areas weeks earlier than usual. The photograph above was taken at a temple in eastern Tokyo in mid-January, nearly a month earlier than the normal season.

While a few people are still skeptical of climate change and global warming, for others the recent trend of unusual weather from snowless winters, icestorms, powerful hurricanes, and melting icecaps bodes ill for the future.

And though those few would have us do nothing considering it be a natural phenomenon, others like Al Gore feel that the last century’s immense pollution output has had a considerable impact on the environment and that action is required.

April 8, 2007 Posted by | global warming, hanami, japan, Kairaku-en, mito, plum blossom, spring, sugawara no michizane, tokyo, travel, ume, yushima tenjin | 6 Comments

The Short, Happy Life of the Cherry Blossom

The Short, Happy Life of the Cherry Blossom

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Shikishima no
Yamato-gokoro wo
Asahi ni niou
Yamazakura bana.

(If one should ask you concerning the heart of a true Japanese, point to the wild cherry flower glowing in the sun.)

— Norinaga Motoori (1730-1801)

Cherry blossoms, called sakura in Japanese, are taken very seriously in Japan. Any tourist or long-term visitor can easily notice this whatever time of the year they arrive. Sakura can be seen everywhere — art, tea cups, TV commercials, wrapping paper, and so on.

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The Great Buddha of Kamakura with cherry blossoms

The official flower of the Japanese imperial family is the stately (and hard-to-pronounce) chrysanthemum. The unofficial national flower is the cherry blossom. Of all the flowers and blossoms in Japan only the cherry blossom can bring the country to a halt: Japanese drop whatever they are doing to rush and grab a blue tarp mat so they can sit under the blossoms.

Every spring, the Japanese wait eagerly with an anticipation that borders on mania for the first blooming of the cherry blossoms. They have been doing this for well over a thousand years.

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Enjoying a cherry blossom “snowfall”

Flowers and blossoms are revered to such a degree in Japan that blooming times are duly noted on calendars and Japanese often plan their vacations around them.

The blooming of the cherry blossom is the most important and the most widely celebrated. In spring, cherry trees barren from winter’s cold grip suddenly burst forth into color and transform the landscape into a fairy tale-like wonder world.

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Ogaki Castle defended by a row of cherry trees.

Even bleak urban centers become almost welcoming under a canopy of pink and white and sometimes yellow blossoms. Cherry blossoms accentuate traditional places such as shrines, temples and castles to their fullest glory. Samurai warlords often went to great lengths to beautify their castles, built for defense, with gardens, fish ponds, and cherry trees.

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A lone blossom petal floats upon the water of a shrine’s purification basin.

The samurai warriors of Old Japan came to take the cherry blossom as their spiritual motif. They saw in the beautiful but brief life of the sakura their own fate. The sakura falls at the height of its beauty rather than withering away. This “death” is much in the same way the samurai wished to die: In the war-torn period of Japan many samurai, like the blossoms, fell at the height of their youth and glory long before reaching old age.

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Enjoying the blossoms with just a few thousand others.

Nighttime finds the Japanese gathered under the blossoms to drink, eat, and be merry as they have done for generations. Hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) is a tradition that goes back to at least the Nara Period (710-784). Hanami was originally an aspect of Chinese influence, but it was the early-blooming plum blossoms that were honored. In the following period known as the Heien (794-1185), the cherry blossom won the attention of the Japanese and the word hanami came to be associated with cherry blossoms.

At first hanami was mainly the pastime of aristocrats but over time the practice spread to people of all walks of life. Hanami celebrants of the past enjoyed poetry games in which contestants tried to come up with new stanzas to continue a poem. Nowadays, for better or worse, portable karoake machines tend to take the place of poetry.

Food stalls selling all manner of Japanese cuisine are a common feature wherever the cherry blossoms are the thickest. Popular food items are okonomiyaki, a Japanese-type pancake of seafood and noodles, takoyaki, breaded balls containing octopus tentacle, yaki-tori, skewered chicken strips, and of course sushi.

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An old cherry tree in Kyoto

The blooming season is brief — too brief for the masses of overworked office workers. The peak period is a time for fleeing the shackles of the office.

Popular cherry blossom viewing spots are crammed with people, food vendors, and blue mats. Inebriated viewers often have a difficult time navigating themselves back to their party through a sea of hanami participants. Companies will book places in advance for their staff parties and send out rookie employees to guard the mats and alcohol during the day.

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Clouds of cherry blossoms! / Is that temple bell in Ueno or Asakusa? — Basho (17th Century)

With the arrival of Western visitors en masse to Japan in the late 19th century following the end of over two centuries of isolation, the Japanese mania for cherry blossoms every spring was viewed with some wry amusement. Certain visitors, who were more practical and with a mind for productivity, just could not see the attraction to trees that, while beautiful, did not bear fruit that could be eaten or sold. The cherry blossom was called by one such visitor as an aristocrat among flowers: not working but wanting to be admired for its beauty.

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Boating under the cherry blossoms at Chidorigafuchi, Tokyo.

This view has changed and nowadays visitors together with the Japanese rush around to see the cherry blossom anywhere it blooms and admire its brief but beautiful life.

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If there were no cherry blossoms in this world / How much more tranquil our hearts would be in spring. — Ariwara no Narihira (10th Century)

April 5, 2007 Posted by | cherry blossoms, hanami, japan, Kyoto, life, party, sakura, samurai, spring, tokyo, travel | 4 Comments