Japan’s springtime cherry blossom festival reminds a visiting Trini of poui season at home
In the Caribbean, we often take the flowers for granted. They seem to be always there: hibiscus, bougainvillea, or frangipani blending incongruously into the tropical landscape. I only realised how much I missed them during the long, bleak winter months I spent teaching English in Japan.
The Japanese are obsessed with hana, or flowers. Although cherry blossoms can be found in many temperate regions of the world, they tend to be synonymous with the land of the rising sun. Every spring, hanami or cherry blossom viewing becomes a national ritual, and an almost religious experience. In almost every newspaper or website, you will find meteorological reports tracking the sakura zensen or cherry blossom front across the Japanese islands, starting in Okinawa to the south and ending in Hokkaido to the north.
Hanami is an old Japanese custom that stretches back to the Nara period (710–794), when it was enjoyed primarily by members of the Imperial Court. However, by the Edo period (1603–1868), cherry blossom mania had caught on, and it became a popular pastime for regular Japanese people. During hanami season, locals flock to parks, castles, and gardens and spread giant blue tarpaulin sheets under the trees’ frothy petals. Even when rain and wind scatter the petals and the ground is drizzled with pink, people still sit under the cherry trees, opening up limited-edition bento boxes for picnics and guzzling sakura-flavoured beer.
The cherry blossom obsession runs deep in Japanese culture and tradition, embodying the Japanese concept of mono no aware, a gentle acceptance of the fleeting nature of things. The flower’s ephemeral beauty has inspired countless haiku poems and paintings, including the popular folk song “Sakura, Sakura”:
noyama mo sato mo
kasumi ka kumo ka
asahi ni niou
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
In fields, mountains, and villages
As far as the eye can see.
Is it mist, or clouds?
Fragrant in the morning sun.
Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms,
Flowers in full bloom.
Sakura is also significant in Japan because it marks the beginning of the fiscal and school year. The first day of the school year at my high school in Tottori prefecture brought new students with flushed faces, swishy haircuts, and pressed uniforms. The flowers promised them a fresh slate, with a host of new friends and new teachers.
When I observed these students, I remembered my own high school days in Trinidad and Tobago. I remembered that in the Caribbean we also have a tree that blooms during April and May every year: the poui.
Jamaican poet Lorna Goodison captures the essence of the poui, likening it to a woman who blooms briefly for a man who swiftly deflowers her. In “Poui”, she writes:
She doesn’t put out for anyone.
She waits for HIM
and in the high august heat
he takes her
and their celestial mating
is so intense
that for weeks her rose-gold dress
lies tangled round her feet
and she doesn’t even notice
Like Japan’s sakura, the Caribbean poui shines briefly before the rainy season’s downpours sweep across the islands and ruin the bright petals. However, unlike the sakura’s promise of a new beginning, the poui’s yellow or pink petals indicate an end. Goodbye to the dry season: sun-browned grass, the smell of burned sugarcane, kite-flying, cricket matches, and picnics under intense blue skies. In particular, the poui is like a death knoll for Caribbean high school students, signifying the end of carefree days of liming and the beginning of cramming for CSEC, CAPE, and final exams in May and June.
Although the Japanese cherry blossom and Caribbean poui are found in two distinct pockets of the world, both remind us of the transition of the seasons and the fragility of life. If we don’t stop to appreciate them, they disappear before we realise it — and we forever lose the message.