You’re pretty impressed with my Japanese there aren’t ya? Juuuust admit it, I know you are.
Disclaimer: If you are not a White Stripes fan, I apologize in advance. I’m hoping you’ll read this and just not ever know what’s going on. For those of you who waited hours to see Jack White live (forever damaging your ear drums in the process) and those of you who cried when they cancelled the aftershow at ACL, read on.
When I arrived in Okinawa last year, I planned to essentially conquer the island and do it fast-like. I wanted to do everything, and do it NOW. Much like my Houston adventure plan that dream fizzled out quickly. Between real life and settling into a foreign country, I only had time for a conquest every so often. I’ve finally realized it’s better that way. No need to go bone broke trying to see everything in a short time. So then (and now) I take it slow. Figure out the roads, see the little acorns, feel the air near my fingers, and thank St. Andrew I can live somewhere that castles still exist. And it’s working out nicely I’m proud to report.
One of the activities that I failed to get to last year was the Sakura festival, otherwise known as Cherry Blossoms. It’s one of those things that really creeps up on you around here. The trees only bloom for about two weeks so if you’re going to do it, you better make it fast – like a 300 MPH torrential outpoor from the sky fast – and get your behind to a good flower-viewing site.
Cherry Blossoms are the beautiful, sometimes stubby trees you see that have thousands of little pink or white blossoms all over them. They only bloom for a few weeks out of the year and climate drastically affects when that will be. The trees are mostly found in Japan, Canada, the US, the Philippines, the Koreas, and Germany. Okinawan cherry blossoms are special for two reasons – 1. Opposite to mainland Japan, the flowers here bloom North to South on the island, mainland being South to North and 2. our cherry blossoms are pink. I mean PINK. Okinawa is famous for many things – Shisha dogs, Ryukyu dancing, blue orchids, a massive aquarium, and their PINK cherry blossoms.
DC Cherry Blossoms:
Okinawa Cherry Blossoms:
While I’m not really into it the background of the Cherry Blossoms, perhaps you are so I am willing to explain. If Jolene rang my doorbell and asked for the story, I would tell her, “The legend goes something like this.” Way way way back in the day, it was considered good luck to have “hanami” – a picnic – under a Sakura tree. Initially, this practice was only allowed to the elite, those of the imperial palace, but eventually it was an activity that all were allowed to participate in and a tradition that is still carried on today. The Japanese Meteorological Agency monitors the cherry blossom season, called the “sakura senzen (translation: the cherry-blossom front),” and annual festivals are scheduled around the predicted dates of the front’s arrival. The “front” always starts in Okinawa and works it’s way to to the North of mainland by April. If you ever visit Japan, you’ll see cherry blossoms plastered all over everything and a pure overload of the flowers arriving during the early few months of each year. They can be found painted on plates, t-shirts, mugs or stationary, used in anime and manga, and sewn onto kimonos. The flower is also represented on the back of the 100 yen coin and used as a flavor in Starbucks drinks for a while: think, the sakura latte. Seriously. The Japanese are a culture of symbolism and not to fret, the cherry blossom was not left out this tradition. Because it is only in bloom for about 2 weeks before dying and falling off of the tree, the flower can sometimes represent mortality and the preciousness of life. It’s an omen of good fortune to come and the beginning of spring. They were even painted on the sides of WWII suicide bomber planes as a sign of intensity and get this – there was actually a unit of air raiders in Japan called “Yamazakura” or cherry blossoms. Pretty scary stuff right? I don’t know what I’d do if I saw a cherry blossom plane of the seven nation army flying over me…..
Anyway, enough history don’t you think? I mean, I’m bound to pack it up and call it done if I have to type much more of that, sorry. Back to the story at hand.
So I missed the festival last year, we’ve clarified that. And as shocking as this is going to be, I, little Jimmy the Explorer, I missed the festival again this year. I had the schedule, I had the dates, I had a staff alerting me that the flowers were blooming. I just don’t know what to do with myself sometimes, ya know? Thankfully, my Cherry blossom death letter had not been written quite yet. I was talking to one of my employees about wanting to go and being sad that I missed the festival and she mentioned she wanted to go as well. Now, Miki is one of those people you meet and you just think, we’re going to be friends. We’re always trying to plan things and nothing ever works out. But it sounded like this was going to work! There was a festival still going on down in Itoman (the town furthest South on Okinawa) which happens to be Miki’s hometown. It was a night festival so the trees were adorned with little lanterns and beautiful lights. With the backdrop of a full white moon, it was going to be a perfect night.
Miki came to work the morning before our little plan was to take place and let me know that the festival was over. The little bird that told her it was still going on had lied, it had ended two days before we planned to see it. I think it was her baby brother so you can’t really be too mad at the guy right? Or maybe we can…I mean, he does LIVE in the city. Oh well. Never fear, we had a new plan. We were saying screw the festival, who needs a festival with lots of little lights and tons of people and absurd amounts of fried dough balls of octopus? The new plan was to meet at the restaurant the following day and we would just make our own festival.
I woke up the morning of said event in my little room and immediately started thinking of ways to bail. For starters, it had been a cold, cold night and I had the beginnings of a killer headache. It felt like little Suzy Lee was throwing broken bricks at my head. I mean really Okinawa, why can’t you be nicer to me? Let’s shake hands and make a pact to show each other some love. On top of that, I was pretty sure I was wasting my time – I mean, I’m not a huge fan of flowers, not going to lie. I strongly considered the passive manipulation approach but as I was deciding my game plan, I got a text from Miki. “The weather is perfect, I’ll let you know as soon as I’m off work! I’m so excited!” Shit. Stop breaking down Steph, there’s no home for you here negative sakura thoughts, time to get on board. I made a pot of coffee, hopped in the shower and prepared for our little journey. Miki was off a little earlier than expected so I slammed one more cup of coffee (when I really wanted to slam a screwdriver) and off we went.
Things to know about Okinawa: 1. There are no street signs. Like….none. It’s like every man’s nightmare and every woman’s dream: directions MUST be based on landmarks. 2. When you do see a sign it’s one of those that says how much further to your destination; they are never right. On this trip we passed 3 signs for our destination starting at 11 km away, then 7, then 4. We travelled 16. And finally 3. The highest posted speed limit on island is 80 kph and that’s on the expressway. For those of you who won’t take the time to do the black math – that’s 49.7 mph. Forty freaking nine. Okinawa is a continuing, never ending lesson in patience, ladies and gents.
Miki and I are slowly (as there’s no other way) making our journey up to Nago and we start to see the cherry blossoms. Just a few at first dotting the expressway shoulders and then more and more as we can see the hills the further North you went on island. Miki hadn’t been acting completely thrilled with this trip either as the weather had turned a little nasty on us, but now we were really getting excited. I was thinking I can’t wait, I just don’t know what to do with myself. The trees were beautiful. When the expressway ended our little journey led us onto a two-lane road that we followed all the way up to Mount Yaedake. This is where the trees REALLY started. They lined both sides of the road and leaned juuuuust enough to give you a tunnel effect. It was like the trees were mocking us, thinking, Sure. It’s MY fault for being famous. I’m allowed to slouch a little. You idiots drove all the way up here to see me!
You know how there’s always the hardest button to button on your favorite peacoat ladies or gentleman on the cuff of your sleeve? Well that’s what it was like trying to find this last turn. This was the 16 km journey that we were told was 11 and then 7 km about 8 km later. Did you get all that? Yea… exactly. But alas, we found our turn and we found our cherry blossoms.
I think we squealed just as loudly around every corner as we had around the first corner as these things seriously make you think you don’t know what love is until you’ve see them. They can truly hypnotize you. We were practically doing hand springs, and I have to say Miki was adorable. Even though she lives in Okinawa, it had been forever for her since she’d been to a Sakura festival. In the end, we decided it was much better that we went by ourselves and missed the actual festival. The amount of people that were out at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday was amazing – I can’t imagine what it would have been like over a weekend. And not to worry, there was one hold out family still making fried dough balls of octopus. We opted for the ice cream wagon instead. Miki had sakura flavored and I had a choice to make between the apple blossom pie, a little cream soda, or the hot chocolate. The day was clearly a success and I was SO glad I hadn’t bailed. Oh, and I went with the hot chocolate.
All for now friends, have a good day.
R.I.P White Stripes. You did us good.