April has been a glorious month as winter finally transitioned fully into spring, with cherry blossom and other flowers blooming throughout. And green has returned to the mountains; as the blossom falls the new fresh spring leaves appear.
I ran my last Anna’s Kitchen cooking class a few days ago, I’ve taught over 100 participants since I started and it has really been a joy. The last session was no exception, and was attended by a lovely group of people.
We made Gateau Chocolat, a recipe shared by a French visitor at the guesthouse last year. I have amended it slightly and cut the sugar content in half. It is an incredibly dense and rich dessert cake to be enjoyed in small slices. My students thought it went well with matcha, powdered green tea. It is gluten free as well.
Hanami here in Kanbayashi means sitting with your picnic under the cherry blossom and enjoying the scenery and food – with the place to yourself.
My previous experience of hanami in Akita and Aomori was quite different. It involved sitting on a tiny square of blue sheet, eating what I call ‘festival food’ (yakisoba, takoyaki, fried chicken, frankfurters…), drinking beer or sake well into the night, surrounded by many others doing the same. It is noisy, boisterous and lots of fun.
It was a spur of the moment thing when we decided to head down to Kyoto city and join the merriment in Maruyama park, the most well known spot for hanami. It was all that I remembered (except driving meant no sake…), full of university students and workers (and now tourists) all jostling for space under a canopy of sakura.
We had to negotiate space on reserved matting just near the famous illuminated weeping cherry. The students allowed us a small area and we got to observe them and their strange drinking games. (At one point they all stood in a circle and one by one had to shout out ‘camembert cheese’-?! Japanese students still appear far more innocent and naive than those back home).
The atmosphere was lively, the food pretty awful and it was fantastic to experience once more.
Literally on 1st April we awoke to the mountains speckled with white yamazakura, mountain cherry blossom. I don’t know if it is just because we are leaving and I am more mindful of taking in my surroundings, but the sakura this year has been more lovelier and more voluptuous than ever and it has been a joy to experience. Our local temple is well known for its weeping cherry trees and we went up several times to walk amongst the blossoms.
Sakura is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and is the national flower. I am often asked if we have cherry blossom in England and of course we do, along with plum and apple, but we don’t pay as much attention or revere it as the Japanese do. There are so many more cherry trees here that have been extensively planted along river banks, in parks, outside schools and other public buildings. Then, there is hanami, or flower viewing parties.
The trees flower for no more than two weeks and their ephemeral beauty brings mono no aware to mind, an awareness of impermanence and the transient nature of life. This is particularly pertinent for us as we pack our belongings, attend leaving parties and prepare to close this chapter of our life
Japan is a country of ceremony, form and ritual – and beginnings and endings. Everything from meals to school lessons to meetings have a formal opening and closing.
Starting and leaving school is no different. At the end of last term I went to the 6th Grade Okurikai (sending off ceremony) at my son’s school. All families were expected to attend, even if your child was in a different grade. With only 8 students in the class (and the largest year group in the school) I imagine the numbers needed to be made up but, more than that, the school has a strong sense of place in the community so many locals attend.
The event was over 3 hours long; fellow students performed plays about them, the teachers followed by the parents sang songs and read personal messages to each child. The 6th graders then sang and played several tunes, ending with powerful taiko drumming .
They left the hall to a final round of applause through an arch of flowers festooned with party poppers. At times it was intense, the students were asked to face the audience and say thank you to the parents and locals who’d attended, virtually all were sobbing, parents and members of the audience were also in tears…
Then, of course, they had a graduation ceremony as well. I attended the graduation at one of the schools I worked at. It was another formal and emotional affair with messages from students to their parents and vice versa, then the remaining children thanked them for their help and the many shared experiences, again lots of tears.
You might think this was too much. In some ways I do, but with so many aspects of Japanese life, milestones are marked with much care and attention. I sometimes wonder if these formal ceremonies provide an acceptable space for the often reticent Japanese to express their feelings and be emotional, when finished it is back to normal.
Starting school is equally important, new pupils dress up and attend an opening ceremony with their parents. Traditionally women would wear kimonos, but today suits are more common.
My daughter had her elementary school entrance ceremony last week. She is one of just 3 pupils in the first grade, combined with the 7 students starting Junior High (the two schools are combined) the event was for just 10 children. I counted over 30 local dignitaries and heads of organisations in attendance including the mayor of Ayabe. There were even 10 or so representatives from the construction company that recently completed work at the school.
It went on for an hour and a half, with many speeches. My daughter was required to stand, bow and sit numerous times throughout. Needless to say she didn’t enjoy the actual ceremony that much. But she did love the preparation, the dressing up and donning her yellow school cap and landoseru , the iconic leather rucksack used by Japanese elementary children.
I remember bits of my first day of school but don’t really remember leaving primary school at all. I bet, however, these kids will never forget the beginning and ending of their school.
Kinome are the young soft leaves of the Japanese herb prickly ash. The flavour is a fragrant mix of citrus, pepper and mint and the leaves are used as a garnish or in simmered dishes. I like to use kinome to make a fresh, zesty dressing.
The early shoots are just leafing now, in a month or so they’ll be a little prickly and more defined. The seed pods, sansho no mi, appear soon after and once dried are one of the spices used in shichimi, Japanese seven spice.
Keeps for about a week in the fridge, although loses its lovely vibrant colour after a day
*Tofu is best left on a chopping board that is placed at a slight angle on the draining board for 30 minutes or so to expel water, otherwise it will seep into the salad.