Few things can distract residents of the Washington, DC area and attract throngs of tourists like the arrival of the cherry blossoms. Surrounding the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial and in other residential communities like Kensington, Maryland, the annual blooming of thousands of trees provides a billowing canopy of white and pink flowers. With an intensity of adulation few regions can attest to outside of Japan, many blossom viewers might be forgiven for “thinking they’re turning Japanese, they really think so” (obscure Vapors song reference).
In gentler times, before caravans of buses unloaded tourists for an hour of walking around the cherry trees for picture taking before hopping back on the bus to move onto the next viewing area, the arrival of the blossoms provided a backdrop for leisurely gatherings and reflection. Two favorite interpretations of the “cherry-blossom festival” (“sakura matsuri”) are the Japanese sayings “Mono No Aware” and “Hana Yori Dango;” the first refers to an ideal, the second to the real pleasures of cherry-blossom viewing.
“Mono No Aware” translates to an awareness of or empathy for the impermanence of things, in this case the few days during which the cherry blossoms are in bloom before disappearing – the “ahh-ness” of our loves and our lives, to be appreciative of the moment. During off-peak tourist hours or in locations remote from the most popular viewing areas in downtown DC, it is still possible to sit under a group of cherry trees in bloom, enjoying a still moment or a quiet thought. Oftentimes that thought is, “I’m hungry.”
The practice of sitting or gathering under the cherry blossoms (“hanami”) dates back to 8th Century Japan. These outdoor events or picnics frequently included food. Hence, the cheeky phrase “Han Yori Dango” – dumplings rather than flowers – hinting that the real reason the cherry blossoms are so enjoyable is that they provide a setting to enjoy foods specially prepared for the event. While viewing the blossoms remains popular, here in DC, it seems that few have the leisure time for a relaxing gathering including food and drink that celebrate the arrival of Spring.
If there are no cherry blossom trees near you, many tea companies annually promote their version of a cherry-blossom tea as a way to bring the blossoms into your cup – not literally, although you could. For over six years now, we have had a cherry-blossom white tea blend at Zen Tara Tea and we recently added a sakura matsuri green tea blend to let tea lovers everywhere feel a part of the cherry-blossom season. Frequently, customers have requested a little more from their “hanami” tea experience, wanting to know if they could they add real cherry blossoms to their tea?
This Spring we gave them that chance at the shop. The photograph included with this post is of preserved cherry blossoms from Japan made available to customers for adding to a cup or pot of green tea. Available at most Japanese food stores or online, the blossoms are traditionally preserved in salt-and-plum vinegar. In Japan, cherry-blossom tea is just that – preserved cherry blossoms in hot water in all their salty, vinegary glory, a bit of an acquired taste. To moderate this salty / sour flavor, we did a careful rinsing of the blossoms, and while they are pretty additions to a cup of tea, they don’t really meet customers’ expectations for adding a floral or cherry note to the tea. Adding preserved cherry blossoms can smooth out the astringent notes of some green teas and ironically harkens back to the ancient Chinese practice of adding a pinch of salt to a cup of tea.
Regardless of what trees or flowers are blooming in your area, take a few minutes, sip a cup of tea, and whisper “ah-haaa” (or “ah-choo” – allergy sufferers have a decidedly different take on the cherry-blossom experience). Pass the rice balls and mochi, please.