Sunday, March 13, 2022

A "New Normal" Japanese Rite of Spring

--Susan, every other Sunday

After living much of my life in California, where the changing seasons are observed primarily on the calendar, I never tire of watching the seasons change here in Japan.

Spring and Autumn are particular favorites, because their emergence tends to be both sudden and very welcome after the freezing or hot and humid (think "drinkable air") temperatures that went before.

This week, the temperatures in Tokyo once again changed on a dime--in the course of two days, we went from close-to-zero (C) to some of the most spectacular spring weather anyone could hope for. The cherry blossoms (which will be early this year) are a week or two from blooming, and people have begun to shed their winter hats and parkas for lighter clothes.

It's difficult to celebrate when the world as a whole is suffering, but I also think it's both possible and important to observe (and even enjoy) the changing seasons.

In Japan, the traditional hanami (flower viewing) parties that take place at cherry blossom time did not occur last year. In many places, towns and cities even put up orange cones and ropes beneath the trees, to prevent people from spreading out picnic blankets. An unprecedented suspension of a centuries-old tradition, in response to an equally unprecedented global situation.

As a result, it was necessary to find other ways to appreciate the blossoms. For me, that meant a trip to Lake Ashi (Ashinoko) in Hakone, for a hike that supposedly featured some blooming trees. 
A lovely day for a hike

The hike began on the shore of Ashinoko, near the pier where the sightseeing (aka "pirate") ships depart for their hourly trips across the lake. The swan boats had emerged from their winter storage, too.

The first sakura of the day

I'd picked up breakfast from a local bakery, hoping to find a place for a picnic meal along the trail. To my delight, I found not only blooming sakura trees but an empty, open-air gazebo atop a hill near the start of the hiking trail.
Blooming sakura

Sakura symbolize the arrival of spring, and the impermanence of both life and beauty; the flowers are lovely, but die and fall within a couple of days after opening. Even the smallest breeze can knock the petals from the trees by the thousands, creating a "rain" of pale pink petals.

Lake Ashi from the hiking trail

This trail was new to me last year; I'd heard about it, but never hiked it myself. It runs halfway around the lake, and takes about 2 hours to hike from one end to the other.

A fisherman on the shore of Lake Ashi

The trail is also an access point for a number of secluded fishing spots along the lake. 

For the most part, the trail parallels the shore, passing through groves of pine, maple, and sakura trees, with ongoing views of the lake.

Monument in the trees.

One segment of the path moves away from the shore, presumably in order to pass this shrine and monument in the trees. Unfortunately, the sign was so weathered that it had become almost illegible. I could make out only that the site has been here for over a hundred years. 

A couple of times each hour, I saw the sightseeing ships pass by...

The trail was essentially empty--I saw only about half a dozen people the entire morning (most of them fishing rather than hiking)--which made it feel as if I'd somehow stumbled onto a world filled with blooming trees and secret coves. In the cove above, a family was playing with a little, remote-controlled speedboat. I think I enjoyed watching it almost as much as they did. 

Hidden treasure of the day

About two-thirds of the way around the lake, I came upon a cove entirely surrounded by blooming cherry trees. In a normal year, in most places in Japan, a grove like this would have been filled with people admiring the blooms or picnicking beneath the trees. But this wasn't a normal year, and I was the only person there.

(In truth, I suspect that even in normal years, this grove remains almost entirely empty--visible to people passing by on the sightseeing boats, but accessible only to those intrepid enough to make the two-hour hike to get there. In related news: I know where I plan to have my sakura picnic this year...)

Spring has sprung in Japan, so to speak, and although the sakura aren't yet in bloom, we're rapidly approaching our third sakura season since the start of the C-19 pandemic. Japan hadn't yet shut down at sakura time in 2020 (though it happened soon afterward), but people had to get creative to see the blooms last year. Discovering the "secret trail" in Hakone ended up being far more fun than jockeying for space in a crowded park, or looking up at the blossoms from a group. In fact, it's likely to become my "new normal"--and I have to admit, it's nice to reflect on the positive things the last two years have wrought, even as I hope and pray that the next two years are easier for all of us than the ones that came before.

How have your traditions changed in the last two years? Have you found any new ones you hope to continue even as the world opens up again?


  1. What a treasure to find amidst so much beauty, Susan. As for any of my traditions changing, I think the last two years have brought about more of a change in priorities than traditions.

  2. I’m always impressed by the beauty of Japan!

  3. So lovely, Susan. It a joy to share in it.

  4. Isn't it wonderful to find such a treasure? Don't write about it in Japan.