This Is What It Means To Say Hanami in Seattle

Photo by Thomas Ulrich. Licensed CC0-Public Domain.
Photo by Thomas Ulrich.
Licensed CC0-Public Domain.

Each time I’ve tried to write about hanami in Seattle, there’s something that makes me hesitate.

Maybe I’m thinking about it too much through the prism of what happened this year. I’m a JA girl who celebrates Girls’ Day with mochi and pancakes, so I can’t expect authenticity in traditions. This year, as we took our young daughters, I couldn’t help feeling a certain nostalgia for a different kind of hanami, perhaps even a desire for a broader awareness of this tradition in Seattle.

I learned about hanami in college, but didn’t experience it until I was a grad student at the University of Washington. The Quad is known worldwide for its flowering Yoshino cherry trees, which were a gift from Japanese diplomats. I had six years of sitting under the trees in the Quad or sometimes shivering on a cement border under the clouds.

Hanami-UW Pic 1

Once our daughters were born, after grad school, we started taking them to see the cherry blossoms in Seattle every year. After months of early darkness and cloud cover, we do welcome all those signs of color and life returning to the trees. Most of the time we bring picnic blankets, sometimes a picnic bento from Maruta, one of my favorite Seattle Japanese grocery stores. I wanted to make this another annual family tradition, one where we could take pictures each year and show how the girls were growing. We have pictures of the girls sitting on the grass, reading books in the sunshine, holding sprigs of sakura, running around the Quad. Sometimes we’ve got picnic blankets with us, sometimes even enough food for a picnic if the weather’s warm enough. This year, there are pictures of my daughters climbing trees. I treasure those still.

* * * * *

Going during the week is best if you want to avoid crowds. During the week you’ll have a good number of students and staff on the Quad. But on the weekend, especially this year, it seemed to be a different crowd. We’ve seen wedding parties taking portraits, cosplay fans, cheerleaders practicing gymnastics. This year, my oldest daughter wanted to climb the trees, but not many were open—that’s how crowded it was. Then there were two families who were waiting to “use” the tree that my daughter wanted to climb, as a spot for formal family portraits. They came equipped with a stepladder, a tripod for the camera, their adorable girls dressed in bright ruffly pastels for spring or even Easter. “You take as long as you need,” one of the mothers told us.

I know she thought she was being gracious, but we were taken aback at the idea of having to get anyone’s permission to claim or climb the trees. I had to wonder if these families knew about hanami—or if it really mattered if they did. Maybe not everyone who visits the Quad in spring has to know about hanami, or even observe it as a tradition. But I wonder what they’re missing by not knowing about it.

* * * * *

Maybe I am hoping for the authentic at the heart of the adaptation. With traditions, there will usually be some form of change, especially if the tradition’s going to survive. Yet my hanami days in Seattle with my daughters have felt especially dear—in both meanings of the word, “cherished” and “almost too valuable.” “Never have I been so conscious of the one-way direction of time,” I once wrote, when my oldest daughter was two. “She’ll never look this way again.”

* * * * *

I asked a few friends who grew up in Seattle if they knew about hanami, or what it meant. Some friends who did know what it was hadn’t learned about it until college, like I did. A few non-Japanese friends who grew up in South Seattle told me that they grew up with it as a tradition. My friend Omar who grew up in Beacon Hill, a Seattle neighborhood which historically had a higher percentage of Nikkei, told me that he used to go to hanami picnics with his Nikkei friends.

The way Beacon Hill was in the 70s was very open. Seattle was in the middle of its worst economic crisis in eighty years. The city had shrunk below 500,000 people. The people who stayed were the ones who held firmly onto tradition, and Seattle being Seattle, many of those traditions were Japanese and Chinese and Scandinavian in origin. Hanami was one of them.

Omar grew up going to Seward Park, where Seattle’s Cherry Blossom festival started before it moved to its current location at Seattle Center. “Even in [the early 1970s],’ he told me, “the blossoms in the Quad were legendary.” When I asked him how specific his Nikkei friends were about the hanami tradition—did they talk about why they were going?—he replied:

The Tsutsumotos were of two minds about it, I think. They spoke of it as an ‘Emperor’s Festival’—but of course to Nisei who had fought in WWII that phrase had different connotations. What I understood about it then was that the cherry blossom itself was extremely important to Japanese culture. The story I always heard told was that the blossom represented life itself, blooming beautifully but only briefly, then returning to the earth. Which tells you how Romantic my peeps were then.

And so maybe the Quad’s not the best place for hanami, since there are so many populations that use it for different purposes. (The Cherry Blossom Festival, one of the longest-running ethnic festivals in the city, is now held at the Seattle Center, downtown.) Instead, as Omar suggested, you need to go back to Seward Park, location of the first gift cherry trees from Japan, to find the Japanese roots of hanami, clearly identified. “The cherry blossoms are early this year,” says the Friends of Seward Park website, “so why not come out for some hanami—flower viewing—the pastime of emperors?”

The more I thought about it, the more I felt Omar was onto something. And this is why the word authentic keeps coming up in my mind, even as I hesitate to write about it. At the heart of the hanami tradition, at least as I’ve heard about it, there is mono no aware—an intense awareness of the fragility and transience of beauty. Indeed, according to a famous literary scholar quoted in the Japan Times, mono no aware includes an awareness of more than the transitions of the season: “not just sad or fleeting emotions, but also joy and intense appreciation.”

* * * * *

So on the one hand, perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on the families taking their portraits at the Quad. They, too, might be trying to capture the beauty, fragility, and impermanence of their children at this young age.

On the other hand, the picture I keep returning to is the one that I took in the middle of the chaos and noise, a small attempt to capture what I hope for on hanami days.

Hanami-2 sakura

There’s my oldest daughter, running over to the cherry trees and back to us, and back to the trees, over and over again. She’s wearing a pink and purple flowered dress, and she’s running so hard that she’s laughing. There she is again, holding out a sprig of sakura that she’s picked up off the ground. A few years later, there are both of my daughters sitting in the wintry Seattle April sun. They’ve run across the Quad together, big sister watching out for little sister, and now they’re getting some rest before they get up to run back to us. There are clouds of cherry blossoms above them, swirls of petals fluttering down with each passing breeze. Mostly, though, we’re watching the girls. This is what it means to say hanami.


(This essay is the second in a yearlong series commissioned by Discover Nikkei, web project of the Japanese American National Museum. The author wishes to thank Discover Nikkei and its project manager Yoko Nishimura for permission to reprint the series here.)

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