by Jurgen Lett
The cherry blossom (sakura) has been celebrated in Japan for many centuries and holds a special place in Japanese culture. Sakura bloom for just a couple of days in spring and the Japanese celebrate this time of the year with Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties. Friends, family or work colleagues gather and sit on plastic mats under the blossoming trees, to drink, sing, chat or just admire the spectacle.
It was early spring when we left Kobe and still very cold, so we headed for the warmer south. Our first destination was Himeji, 60km away, home to the largest and most visited castle in Japan. The sun was shining and the cherry blossom festival was underway.
Riding west along the Inland Sea coast we passed through Okayama, then turned north to make our way across the island of Honshu. We encountered rough pot-holed roads crossing snow-covered Mount Daisen. The hilly terrain left little room for fields and villages, so the inland was sparsely populated.
We stopped at the youth hostel in the village of Yubara, where the hostel father presented me with a bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, which I have to this day. Yubara has hot springs, or onsen, where groundwater is heated by volcanoes. Japan has many active volcanoes, and consequently many areas of hot springs. We enjoyed soaking in the onsen baths outside, and also enjoyed the steaming water inside which is piped to houses and hotels.
The size and shape of a traditional Japanese house is determined by the number of tatami mats it can contain. Tatami are a traditional mats made of rush (igusa) and cloth. The standard tatami is 910 mm by 1820 mm and rooms are measured by the number of tatami which make up the floor area. Tatami rooms have many purposes, including bedroom, dining room and entertaining area. Each morning I would roll up my Japanese mattress, or futon, and store it in a cupboard.
On entering a traditional Japanese house I took off my shoes in the entrance or genkan, and put on slippers supplied by my host. I placed my shoes neatly pointing towards the door, as this is considered good manners. I walked the polished timber floor of the hallway, and left my slippers at the door of the tatami room. It is forbidden to walk on tatami in slippers and nor is it acceptable to walk in bare feet. I made sure that my socks were clean and free of holes, as I walked on the tatami. And when I went to the toilet I removed my house slippers and slipped on toilet slippers.