On Saturday 18 April, Fawzia Kane and Louisa Hooper will be celebrating the Japanese tradition of Hanami, or ‘flower viewing’, with a blossom-fueled poetry workshop at the Brogdale Collections…
It hardly seems it, but it’s more than a quarter of a century since I sat beneath the avenue of flowering cherries by the great Agano River, not far from the hydroelectric dam. I was picnicking with my co-workers from the West Aizu Town Hall Education Office and sipping beer. It was a little early in every sense, spring only then arriving in this mountainous outpost of northeast Japan; the pale blossoms above us barely open; the afternoon not yet faded to dusk, when the lanterns strung between the trees would begin to shine. We were the advance party, saving places for the rest who would join us after dark, tucking our coat collars in close as the cool wind rising from the river eddied round us, waiting for the party to begin.
It wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated from the pictures on TV – famous parks and landmarks thronging with festive, noisy, feasting crowds – as the cherry blossom ‘front’ swept slowly southwest to northeast across the country. The ‘front’ was a daily feature of the news, the anchorman reporting to a nation even more interested in its advance than the British are in heat waves and high-wind forecasts.
But hanami – literally ‘flower’ [hana] ‘watching’ [mi] – gathering with colleagues, friends and family to celebrate beneath the flowering cherry trees – is deeply embedded in Japan’s culture and tradition, even if these days, as a Japanese friend once put it, the ‘viewing’ is mostly of the bottom of a beer glass. Long ago, the aristocracy would hold elite gatherings at this time of year to contemplate the beauty of the plum and cherry in bloom, and to compose new poems to capture the fragile, fleeting loveliness of their flowers as if the blossoms themselves rested forever in the palms of outstretched hands.
For me hanami is a tradition of metaphor and wistful attention to the moment: the turning of the season, the transience of beauty, the beauty in transience. And, as winter eases into spring again, and the cherry blossoms open and fall, why not join us for a little noticing and note-taking in the orchards of Brogdale, with some feasting under the flowers, and who knows what new poems…?
Matsuo Basho’s famous collection of travel sketches for his book The Narrow Road to the Deep North show us how life can be a series of segued serendipities. Last Saturday, the poet Chris Beckett and the artist Isao Miura arranged A Walk on the Poem Road, inspired by Matsuo Basho’s work. Isao’s wonderful exhibition, based on Basho’s Narrow Road is now on at the Poetry Cafe. During Chris and Isao’s journey, we filtered through the morning quiet streets from Convent Garden, down to the tourist throb of the river’s edge, then onto Westminster Bridge to read Wordsworth’s sonnet plaque. In between our note taking while we walked, we stopped off for tea on a moored boat.
The sun’s bright on our fingers; tea ripples in the cups when the boat rocks.
Isao pulled out a picnic of Japanese sweets for us to try. “Cherry blossom cakes!” His smile was huge. I ate a pink flower star, peeled off a frothy pancake. There were sakuramochi – sticky dumplings, beautifully wrapped in cherry leaves, with red bean paste inside.
And while I sat, memories of last year’s spring bubbled up, of the day my childhood friend Alison took me on a picnic in Brogdale Farm’s orchards, near her home in Kent.
Brogdale Farm near Faversham holds the National Fruit Collection. Each year in spring, they celebrate Hanami with the largest collection of fruit trees in the world. There are over 350 flowering cherry varieties, and we wandered through row upon row of cherry and then apple, plum and pear orchards.
Rows of blossoming trees blur the horizon into the spring-grey sky.
We had brought our own picnic hampers, and these were left with the Brogdale staff when we arrived. We were then shown an exhibition room of Japanese cultural objects and the history of Hanami, and given little tasters of Hanami treats, similar to the mochi Isao had produced. Then came the highlight: the tour through the orchards. The blossom had come out later than usual that spring, and the weather kept flitting from grey to sunshine. But the view of acres of blossom stretching into the distance was breathtaking.
White clouds edged with pink, the scent of blossom wafts and clings to rough branches.
At the end of the tour, we were taken to the picnic site, where paper lanterns had been suspended from the branches. Our hampers had been brought there so we settled onto the ground sheets and spent the rest of the day chilling out, under the blossoms.
For our Poetry School Day on Saturday 18th April, participants will meet at Brogdale mid-morning, and will be taken for an hour long tour with notebooks. We’ll then be shown to the picnic site under the blossoms for our lunch and draft making. Then there’ll be a couple of hours of reading with some writing exercises. If you’d like to stay longer in the orchards until closing time in the evening, you’ll be welcome to.
To join Fawzia and Louisa on their Hanami-inspired workshop and picnic, visit our website or call our offices on 0207 582 1679.
Isao Miura and Chris Beckett’s exhibition, now on at the Poetry Cafe, will be running until Saturday 25 April – Visit The Poetry Society Website for full details and the programme of events