For just seven days each year, Japan is erupts into dreamy shades of pink. Whether in mist-soaked forests or bustling city parks, cherry blossom or sakura trees transform to resemble giant tufts of cotton candy, sweetening the air with a soft fragrance. The flowers are irresistibly inviting, like a pile of freshly cleaned sheets waiting to be sniffed.
Visitors swarm the country for sakura season, and even the typically timid Japanese take on a rather boisterous persona, guzzling sake on picnic mats in parks. The air is thick with excitement and the scent of sakura. Sporadically pink petals gently fall like snow, sprinkling people’s heads and colouring the grass in a dreamy layer of pink.
Yet, just as quickly as all the magic begins, the delicate blossoms drop in the masses to their crumpled deaths. A sad display of barren trees remains, leaving one to wonder why such a beautiful thing has to end so fast.
The frustrating aspect of this picturesque event is catching the tight blooming timeframe, which is ultimately governed by mother nature. Nobody can predict it to a tee, though the meteorological bureau attempts. In some years, people have flown in from far corners of the globe based on predictions, only to arrive far too early, or worse yet, too late, due to unexpected weather changes affecting the blossoming.
Put simply, plan as you might, it’s impossible to know exactly when you’ll catch the elusive sakura. As such, I’m perfectly honest when I say I was extremely lucky to see this on my 27th birthday:
That was just the beginning of curious surprises that day.
As we strolled through Osaka’s parks, we gazed at all the Japanese people having hanami (cherry blossom viewing) picnics. Glimpsing at a particularly large group, we were unexpectedly beckoned by them to join. This was initially confusing since my brain told me I was being swatted away – the “come here” motion in Japan (and much of Asia) is how Westerners would shoo someone off.
I’ll be honest, as I stood there being “shooed”, my innate feeling was to keep walking. Why this instinct exists, I don’t know, but travel does gradually disintegrate anti-sociality. What else do we have going on today?! We walked over towards the group and were greeted with an eruption of smiles and loud laughter.
“Hello! Welcome, please sit down!” we were eagerly directed to a pair of matching seat cushions. “Sit, sit! Relax!”. No sooner had we removed our shoes we were handed cans of beer.
“Ah!” we exclaimed, “Arigato!”.
Before us lay a spread of tasty goods. It was interesting to note what items they had deemed picnic worthy (and presumably fancy), including flavoured blocks of Laughing Cow cheese, strawberries (quite pricey here), slices of beef, tinned sardines, baguettes, wine, and bottles of expensive sake.
We quickly realised that only one person spoke reasonable English, and she acted as the main translator. In our introductions, we learned that the group were all friends from high school. In asking our age by comparison I replied,
“I just turned 27 today. It’s my birthday!”.
“Oh!!!” the group exploded into what can only be described as the typical Japanese excitement, embarrassment and loud awe. This progressed into the best liquored up, Engrish version of happy birthday I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Groups of other Japanese people in the park watched curiously as I was serenaded. At the final verse, the group paused to quickly ask my name.
“Jen? OK – Deaaaah Jennnnnnnnnn. Huppy buthhhhhday to yoooooooou!”. Clapping and cheering ensued and I was handed a generous pour of high-end sake, the smoothest I’ve ever tasted.
“Do you like the sake?” they asked.
“Absolutely!” I replied.
Whoops. Immediately I was offered more, but kindly declined. I’ve heard stories of the extreme generosity of Japanese. For instance, if you point out you like something in someone’s house, they may give it to you to keep. It’s crazy, but kind of true. Ted and I quietly discussed the challenge to express interest, gratitude, and compliments without receiving overt amounts of the expensive treats before us (which ended up happening anyway).
When I exclaimed that I was surprised that everyone in the group was aged 46, they burst into uncontrollable laughter. Frantically I explained in dramatic gestures how Canadians like to suntan, and don’t use hats or umbrellas in the sun like the Japanese do, and thus age faster. They looked young. I mean, who would have guessed these people are almost old enough to be our parents?!
Liquor-fuelled conversation and jokes continued. I’ll never forget the moment one of my bare feet stepped off the mat as I snapped a group photo. In unison, everyone gasped as my toes grazed the grass – a major faux pas. I assured them I was fine though was recognised the look of horror from two years ago when I surprised a store clerk entering an H&M dressing room with my shoes on by mistake.
Continuing our comical rambling conversations, we all got a kick trying to identify familiar cultural snippets of each other’s countries. Baseball and pokemon were enthusiastic common grounds on both ends. One of the men excitedly listed off every Canadian singer he could think of, including Bryan Adams and Rush.
Then, as if the day hadn’t been quite random enough, the group beckoned over a magician. Yes, a magician. Because grown Japanese people have an insane array of cute, childlike obsessions (Disney, cartoons, rainbows, and animals to name a few), so magic should be a given. Presumably, there’s high enough demand in this country for a young man to be strolling a public park on a Saturday afternoon in a magician’s cape, as that’s just what he was casually doing on that day.
Though it’s difficult to say whether it was the veil of sake or superior talent, I was impressed. One would hope so too, given that each of the 10+ people tipped 1000 yen or ~$10 CAD a pop. From hovering a ball between his hands to having Ted pick a foldable cup with a spike under it, (which of course was correctly determined after slamming his hands on the other two spike-less cups), it was pretty darn good.
Dusk eventually crept over the bright sky, and the group began to pack up. In this time we were handed sake, handfuls of wrapped cookies, and a Doraemon DVD. Japanese people really are some of the most giving we have ever met. They genuinely don’t expect anything in return, and offer you anything as if it’s no big deal.
Grateful, we stood and bowed deeply several times declaring with quite drunken passion our love of Japan and its kind people. We assured them should they ever come to Australia or Canada, we’d love to look after them, and e-mailed them later to remind them of that once more.
The rest of the day was a sake-soaked blur, followed by additional birthday brews, sushi-go-round, and yogurt dipped bananas. By midnight, the sharp throb of a hangover overtook my skull (curse you sake), but nothing could stop me from continually (and sloppily) professing to Ted that this was “the BEST birthday EVER!“.
Now sober, I’d definitely have to agree. I’m fortunate and grateful for another year rich in experiences I’ll always remember. I’m a lucky girl in too many ways to list, but try to never take for granted the adventures, friendships, and relationships I have. Life is great. Here’s to another year of really living it!