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last of the sakura & pancakes

April 21, 2011

Sakura, or cherry blossoms, are a big thing here in Japan. I’m sure that anyone familiar with Japan and Japanese culture in any way already knows that, but I don’t think many people who have never experienced late March and early April in Japan really have a full grasp on exactly how big of a deal it is. Every single person, from the pre-schoolers to the old grandmothers who have lived through 80+ years of it look forward to the blossoms coming.

My first year here I was surprised at exactly how pervasive the sakura obsession was. I was not really surprised at my instructors and Japanese friends bringing it up in conversation, nor groups of middle-aged women on the street; but seeing small children, suit-clad business men toting briefcases, and even gangs of high school boys bursting with anticipation at the coming of the pink blossoms was not what I would have expected.

And it’s not just certain portions of the population of Japan that makes a big deal out of it; it’s truly a cultural institution. I’d say it comes close to the 2-3 weeks surrounding Christmas in the west, but rather than culminating in a major holiday with family and gift exchanges, it culminates with massive picnics and drinking parties and a week or so of everyone finding every excuse they can to be outside near a park.

Blossoms still hanging on as the first green leaves appear towards the end of the blossoming process.

If you have never been in Japan during spring you might not realize it, but a very large number of the trees planted around towns, rivers, parks, etc. are some kind of sakura, which causes the entire country to explode in pink blossoms around the same time every year.

A couple of weeks before the event itself, when the buds first start appearing on these trees, the entire country goes on high Sakura alert. The weather reporters begin predicting the dates for the progression of the ‘cherry blossom front’, and come out with detailed maps showing the degree to which blossoms in various areas and parks have opened based on a multi-part scale; social and work related groups will begin pinpointing the best dates for hanami; and the stores explode with limited edition sakura-flavored or themed products.

Children will gather up and throw petals at each other and their parents much like snow in the winter.

Somehow, despite this having been my 6th consecutive Spring season in Japan, the blossoming of the cherry trees always catches me by surprise. I’m not sure if I have some kind of recurring amnesia, or if I just I fall victim to desensitization because of the hype leading up to the trees blossoming, but I’m fairly certain that the blossoms have exceed my expectations every single year. Before they open I find myself filled with an expectation for them to be beautiful, but also mild sense of “been there, done that, have the pictures” that tempers my level of excitement.

Fallen petals being carried away in streams on the river.

The first few buds open slowly over a several day period, with slightly more pink visible each day. It’s pretty easy to look at the trees during this time and think “oh looks like they’ve blossomed.. nice!” and move on, but this is really just a pre-show. The real peak always comes practically overnight, and when it happens it is impossible not to realize that it has happened. There there is always that one “Wow” moment when you step outside for the first time and are stopped in your tracks in wonder at the sight of it all.

For me that usually seems to happen when I head out for a run along the nearly river, which has sakura trees planted up and down its entire length.

My running path along the river as it appear about one week after the sakura peak.

The blossoms only last about one week at best after they reach their peak before they fall, almost like snow, and cover absolutely every surface in pink. This is possibly my favorite part of the entire thing. I remember vividly the first time I got caught in a sudden gust of wind on my way to class five years ago and found myself in the middle of a whirlwind of flying pink petals. It honestly felt like a scene straight out of a movie that couldn’t possibly be real, and yet every year it happens again.

I don’t think anyone ever really gets it until they’ve been in Japan to see it happen.

Despite essentially doing hanami three or four times in one week (Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Thursday), over the weekend I went back to Shinjuku Gyoen with Eric in tow for one last glimpse of the flowers. I wasn’t expecting there to be much left at that point, but apparently they keep a larger variety of trees than I realized and many of them were still blossoming, so it was still very, very pretty.

We got a little bit rained on while there, but it was worth it for the views. I didn’t bring my camera, but Eric  brought his and got some great shots. I think I’ve probably already reached my quota on sakura pictures for this year, though, so I’ll refrain from sharing any.

On Sunday we headed back out to Chiba for another Luna Sea session. As is our custom, I made pancakes for breakfast that morning. I go through a lot of pancake experimentation and recipe tweaking, but for quite a while I’ve been using a spelt flour, flax, & cottage cheese based combination that yields a fantastic tasting, higher protein but still fluffy pancake.

Sadly, I had been out of spelt flour for a while, and my favorite cottage cheese seems to have fallen victim to the quake supply problems and disappeared from the shelves. So instead I opted to use up the last of the pumpkin I opened the week before and make whole wheat pumpkin spice pancakes.

They may be out of season and from totally opposite time of year, but they still came out very, very well.

Whole Wheat Pumpkin Spice Pancakes

120 g whole wheat pastry flour
25 g flaxseed, ground
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp allspice
2 eggs
125 g pumpkin puree
125 g whole milk
20 g blackstrap molasses
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp maple extract

Measure all of the dry ingredients into a medium bowl and use a whisk to combine well.

Add the wet ingredients the jar of a blender, and pulse until the mixture is thoroughly combined and homogenous.

Pour the wet mixture onto the dry ingredients, and whisk until just combined. Use as few strokes as possible and don’t worry about small streaks of flour. Let the pancake batter rest for about 10-15 minutes before cooking to ensure the fluffiest possible pancakes.

While the batter sits, warm up a griddle or non-stick pan over medium low heat. When hot, brush the surface lightly with butter or coconut oil. Use a 1/4 cup measure or a ladle to pour the batter onto the griddle. Let cook until bubbles just begin to break the surface, then gently flip the pancakes and cook for about 1m more before removing to a plate. Keep the cooked pancakes staked and covered with a kitchen towel to keep them warm while you finish cooking the rest.

This recipe yields 8 pancakes. I like to eat two pancakes each fresh from the griddle and reheat the leftovers for breakfast the next morning.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Alex permalink
    April 29, 2011 2:03 am

    So beautiful

    • April 29, 2011 11:53 am

      Yeah, it really is! And somehow it’s always prettier than you remember, too.

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