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Blossoms in the snow
Publication Date : 15-01-2014
Sakura and an icebreaker herald the arrival of spring in Japan
Pinkish-white cherry blossoms, or sakura as they are known here, peek cautiously from the trees as the cold wind blows, fluttering gently as if welcoming the spring with a round of applause.
The cherry blossom viewing festival is celebrated all over Japan starting from the end of March to early May. It's so popular that the television news programmes carry a daily forecast of the city and date when the trees are blooming. The explosion of the delicate flower begins in the southern part of Japan and gradually moves northward. Along its way, its awakening beauty and timid petals captivate the hearts of all that see it.
Sakura has been completely assimilated into the life of Japanese people, from art to literature to culture of hanami. Hanami, which literally means flower viewing, has been practised throughout Japan for thousands of years. The fascination with blooms started with plum blooms before moving to these delicate pink flowers and the cherry blossom viewing took off during the Heian Period (794-1185).
Originally, sakura was used to announce the rice-planting season. In the old days, people believed in the kami or god inside the trees and made offerings with sake, Japanese rice wine. It is believed that an emperor of the Heian Period adopted this practice, and held flower-viewing parties with sake and feasts underneath the blossoming boughs of sakura trees in the Imperial Court in Kyoto. Later emperors led courtiers, warriors and royalty in selecting viewing sites where poets and artists entertained the guests with artistic celebrations of the cherry blossoms’ fragile beauty.
But as I walk with hundreds of other people towards the sakura garden at the Ministry of Finance’s Osaka Mint Office (the Japan Mint), it's hard to conjure up the kind of serene atmosphere where artists and poets could solemnly praise the beauty of the delicate flowers.
That impression is confirmed by an announcement from the officer at the gate.
"Please follow the sign and remember this is a one-way promenade, do not make a U-turn," he says sternly.
Hordes of tourists and locals armed with digital cameras and smartphones take photos of the flowers without pausing for breath. There's no poetry but smiles and laughter are everywhere along the 560-metre walkway. The modern-day hanami is like walking through a special exhibition in the museum - quick and untouchable but drawing sighs of appreciation for the mesmerising beauty. A strong spring wind blows sending petals up into the air before they drift slowly to the ground. It's a wondrous scene but also a reminder that beauty and life do not last forever.
Traditionally, sakura have always been regarded as a metaphor for life, youth and beauty, luminous and beautiful but fleeting and short-lived. Walking through the cloud of pinkish white cherry blossoms, which will last for only one week, is an echo of that metaphor.
While the southern part of Japan is covered with cherry blossoms, Kushiro, a city to the southeast of Hokkaido, is still boasting a blanket of pure white snow.
Two hours after taking off from Osaka, we land in Kushiro, a port town famous for seafood, hot springs, Japanese cranes, wetlands and lakes.
A visit to Akan National Park offers a glimpse of what Mother Nature has reserved for Kushiro. The park is home to three lakes - Akan, Kusharo and Mashu - as well as volcanic craters and exquisite forests.
Here it's the Lake Akan ice-breaker that heralds the arrival of spring and Japanese visitors stop to applaud the crushing sound made by the ship as it breaks up the waters of the frozen lake.
Lake Akan is also well known for its marimo, a type of floating green algae ball, which has become a symbol of the town. Hot springs bubble throughout the National Park, and Bokke or boiling mud can be found along the lake front. The sulphuric smell and the rhythmic sound of the boiling mud are proof that the area is blessed with plenty of hot spring water.
Our guide leads us on a trek through the snow, pausing occasionally to remind us of the three golden rules to keep us from falls. "Don't step back, don't step on your own snowshoe and don't step on someone else's snowshoes," he tells us.
We eventually arrive without mishap at Lake Mashu, a caldera with reportedly the clearest water in the world, after a trek that leaves us gasping for breath.
With the cold wind seeping through my hat and toes so cold they feel they might fall off, my mind drifts to my private outdoor hot spring tub at the hotel and I can almost savour the warm sake.