The air is laced with the scent of batter, as tentacled takoyaki balls release their doughy vapour. Amid the blackened corn cobs and sizzling meat skewers of the street food vendors, children dip plastic bowls into water tanks filled with tiny gold fish, trying to catch the wriggling flecks of gold and grey. Boys try to impress passing young ladies by toppling skittles with perfect aim.
But the real reason people are here lies on the other side of the fence. For one week each year, the Japan Mint in Osaka opens its premises to the public allowing them to enjoy the cherry blossom trees that line the Yodo Riverside Lane as all 560 metres explode in flower, marking the start of spring.
Literally thousands of people pack into the narrow pathway to enjoy the sakura blooming in myriad shades of pink as the sun sinks over the riverbank. As darkness sets in, the flowers are lit by glowing orange lanterns and hordes of flashing cameras.
The fairground atmosphere is vibrant and hopeful. It’s touching to see a nation so completely in the thrall of a tiny flower.
“Cherry blossom trees are symbolic of human life,” Kansai region local Emiko Takahashi tells me. “They appear, live for a brief moment and then die, just like people – that’s why they mean so much.
In every shop, cherry-shaped sweets in an assortment of pastel hues, commemorative keyrings and flower-patterned limited edition beer cans ooze from the meticulously polished display cases.
Restaurants have added sakura infused dishes to their menus in honour of the flower’s brief visit – pickled petals, flavoured bean paste wrapped in the tree’s softened leaves.
As I wander back to my hotel in the centre of town, I pull my jacket closer around me. The spring evening air is surprisingly crisp, a lingering reminder of the bitterly cold winter that is still drawing to a close. The uncharacteristically cold temperatures meant the blossom arrived late this year, I am told wherever I go.
More hotly anticipated than usual, this year the cherry blossom has taken on a new significance, signalling a rebirth for the country ravaged by last year’s earthquake and tsunami – each blush petal representing a fresh page.
The joy and relief at seeing the unfurled buds is palpable, and even though their lifespan is fleeting, just the sight of them is reassurance that things are as they should be – a much-needed reminder of the status quo in the aftermath of tragedy.
By the time I get to Kyoto, the blossoms are already starting to fade as the warmer weather sets in. Although the shops are still stacked with the same pink and violet memorabilia, the focus on the flowers is beginning to ease.
Instead of tracking down the trees, I wander the long tiled corridor of Nishiki food market in Kyoto’s city centre, admiring barrels of tea and crates of crystallised ginger as fish observe me glassily from their icy beds.
Laden with packets of aromatic green tea and garishly purple pickled eggplant, I make my way along the Kamogawa riverbank, close to historic Gion, where wilting cherry blossoms carpet the lantern-lit cobbled streets.
Here tourists trample the flowers underfoot as they stalk the streets, cameras in hand, desperate for just a glimpse of a Geisha.
The brief sakura season has been and gone.
- It’s difficult to exactly predict when the trees will bloom, but the season usually starts in January in Okinawa, late March/early April in Honshu and May in Hokkaido.
- Once cherry blossoms open up, they usually reach their peak within around 10 days.
- Hanami (the custom of cherry blossom viewing) dates back around 1,000 years when aristocrats would admire the flowers and write poems.
- Many towns hold cherry blossom festivals, featuring performances of traditional Japanese arts, tea ceremonies beneath the trees, and lit up evening events.