Aoyama Gakuin Exchange Program: Pink skies

By Kristin Lee, Foster Undergraduate and GBC Study Abroad Scholarship Recipient who participated in an exchange with Aoyama Gakuin University.

Japan Kristin Lee 1When I arrived in Tokyo, I was lucky to have arrived just in time for the last week of Hanami, also known as flower viewing or the Cherry Blossom Festival. This annual celebration of friends, families, and coworkers gathering and feasting under the branches of light pink petals to appreciate the beauty of cherry blossoms is a special tradition to the Japanese. Before, I believed I had witnessed the practice of Hanami a few times in the Quad of the UW Seattle campus where Japanese families often gathered to view the cherry blossoms. Perhaps they were practicing Hanami, but my experience of Hanami in Japan was more than what Wikipedia and my Japanese professor ever described and greater than what I had ever seen.

My friends and I were invited by our RA to go practice Hanami at Yoyogi Park, and on that day there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people of all ages swarming inside that park. Some were dressed in lovely kimonos while others wore casual clothes. Every inch of grass was covered by tarp and blankets and the sound level was probably on par with American football games.Japan Kristin Lee 2

However, my friends and I weren’t bothered by the loudness or by the large crowd that seemed to move slowly and endlessly down the pathway. This was because we were completely captivated by the elegant cherry blossom trees as if they were royalty. The once overcast sky had turned into a sky of beautiful specks of light pink that gently showered down when the wind blew. Never have I ever been surrounded by so many cherry blossoms.

Once we found our RA we were kindly greeted by a group of strangers that welcomed us to sit in a circle with them. As time passed, our circle grew in numbers and before I knew it our circle had multiplied into five circles. Food was provided potluck style. In the middle, there was a variety of food from homemade Japanese food to snacks from the convenience store. Nonetheless, everything and everyone was welcomed for this joyous occasion.

Every time a new person arrived, the chain of bows and self-introductions began and we all quickly became acquainted with one another. I was in awe and full of admiration for the polite manners and trusting nature of these people who were all strangers to one another just moments before. In the end, my friends and I spent more than half the day there and reluctantly said our goodbyes.

Japan Kristin Lee 3I quickly came to understand how this tradition has been upheld for so many centuries. It’s an incredible experience. Even now, the memory of it all brings a smile to my face, though it was only the beginning of my new learnings. Hanami is no ordinary gathering for just eating and drinking, it is also a gathering of old and new encounters.  It is not only cherry blossoms that make the view beautiful, but the people that are surrounding you as well. It is a place of companionship. Even though I never got to meet the people I met that day again, like cherry blossoms, people come and go leaving brief memories behind, but the excitement and hope of seeing them once again are everlasting.