Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Sakura Fever in Toronto and Tokyo...

Sakuras are one of Japan's defining hallmarks and marks the entrance of Spring. From the end of March to mid-April, Tokyo's cherry blossom trees burst into the scene with puffy bloom and sweet colour. I've been lucky to visit Japan three times when my brother lived there, and twice I went during high blossom season. Flowers lace and dot the trees and their branches like fluffy cotton balls of whites and pinks. Laying down staring up a tree, it's an incredible feeling to witness the clusters of delicate clouds that seem to romance the sky, knowing that they last a mere two to three weeks in spring. As the flowers unfold, large parks and rivers are flooded with visitors for hanami or cherry viewing parties. Groups and couples would set out blankets, picnicking with snacks and beer, while some play and sing music, snap keepsake photos and take in the surrounding beauty. To say it's a feverish time sounds about right, as festivals take place all over the city, and the roll-out of sakura-themed foods, products and art come to a climax. As the season come to a close, we can only dream of these celebratory times to be had the next year. We are reminded of how precious and short life is and how we need to live and savour every moment.

Toronto is very fortunate to have these very trees line one of our major parks- High Park. In 1959, the Japanese ambassador to Canada, Toru-Hagiwara, presented 2000 Japanese Somei-Yoshino Sakura trees to the citizens of Toronto on behalf of the citizens of Tokyo. The trees were planted in appreciation of Toronto accepting re-located Japanese-Canadians following the Second World War. Many of these trees were planted on the hillside overlooking Grenadier Pond (southwest of the Grenadier Café) and around the east shore of the pond. See map. On a very happy note, it was announced two days ago, that sakura trees will be installed at Woodbine Beach Park similar manner to Japan's popular cherry blossom tunnels thanks to a Japanese donor. Some of the trees could even arrive by the end of this week. It's going to be incredibly stunning next year.... can't wait!

Believe it or not, this was my first time viewing the trees at High Park. I knew they existed here but for some reason, I never went. Perhaps, I thought the experience would pale in comparison to what I seen in its birthplace Japan, but as I will soon find out, these beauties have no borders. My brother invited the families down for a picnic and how could I not but happily oblige. Traffic and parking was bound to be chaotic on a forecasted peak bloom weekend so taking the metro with the fam was indeed a smart and better way. Blossoms in High Park usually reach peak bloom between late April and early May. The date varies year by year as it is a temperature dependent process.

Photo Credit: Lisa Kaffenbaum

Doing what the Japanese do-- group lunch picnic minus the alcohol.

We had a simple make-our-own sandwiches with cold cuts and vegetables, snacks and fruit... 

A nice popular Japanese snack I recommend to port and eat for hanami is onigiri-- it's like the equivalent of our hamburger! Rice balls or "musubi", literally means "grip" such as holdable rice. We call it triangle rice in my household and my kids love them! In Japan, you can get onigiri filled with anything from grilled salmon, to natto (fermented soy beans) to premium ingredients such as uni (sea urchin) or snow crab... my favourite ones are simply filled with umeboshi (a salted plum preserve).

Try my Onigiri recipe.

We ventured out to another area for the kids to play and where people were enjoying the balmy weather.

The blooming period begins when 20% of the cherry blossoms are open and ends when the petals fall. “Peak bloom” starts when at least 70% of the blossoms are open. Once open, flowers last from 4-10 days, depending on the weather conditions. Cool, calm weather can extend the bloom period, while warm, unsettled weather can shorten it.

Approximately 12 days before peak bloom, the florets (deep pink at this stage) start to extend out of the buds. 6-10 days before peak bloom, the peduncles (flower stems) get longer and the individual blossoms can be clearly seen. Blossoms are very vulnerable to frost at this stage.

Sakuras taken in Japan at the middle of bud-to-bloom process. 

The sakuras at High Park were at 70% bloom and with so many people gathered to make the best of the beautiful day viewing and taking selfies and photos, I vowed I must come back during the week to enjoy a closer-to-full bloom and photo-taking with less crowds.

Photo Credit: High Park Brewery recently announced the launch of their 
latest beer Under the Sakura, a light cherry blossom lager.

Instead of heading all the way to High Park from where I was with grey skies, wind and cool in the air, I heard that the Japanese Cultural Community Centre (JCCC) had a dozen of trees that were fully bloomed. I made my way over and pretty much had the fluffy trees to myself with nary a person to contend with. They are just as gorgeous as the sakuras I seen in various parts of Japan. I was just so delighted today :).

So Pretty in Pink!

As the flowers bloom, in Japan anything that can be made with sakura flavour and/or with a pink hue, it surely will be done. From lattes to sakura sakes, to pink and chewy mochi rice cakes to sakura-flavoured chips and chocolate.

Sakura-flavoured beer!

Sakura-flavoured tea beverages and snacks!

Sakura sweet bread! These were so good :D

Sakura mochi red bean rice cakes for gift-giving!

More sakura sweets, treats and desserts!

Sakura-decorated rice crackers!

This is one of my all-time favourite beauty shots of cherry blossoms in Japan.
Sharing with you a gallery of my best snaps in sakura season 2005-2006.
Sit back and enjoy the breathtaking views...

In Izu Peninsula in 2006

In Asakusa Senso-ji Buddhist Temple 2005

Sakura tunnels in the streets of Ikebukuro, Tokyo 2006 

"As the season comes to a close, the Japanese pray for good weather. Spring rain or strong winds will wash the petals away early and everyone wants the blossoms to hang on just a while longer. As everything has its season, and as the last of the flowers fall away people flock to the parks for one last stroll among the trees. Now most of the petals dust the ground and those that remain slowly fall whirling from above, the saddest and yet the most beautiful part of cherry blossom season."-- Bento Box Magazine.

 Here's looking at you kid, until next year this time again... so long for now...

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