After a late start to spring and unseasonably cold weather, the sakura (桜 / さくら / cherry blossoms) have finally bloomed across the Greater Toronto Area. We began getting alerts early last week that flowers were out at High Park, Trinity Bellwoods, and outside Robart’s Library at U of T. We’ve been using Instagram to see when peak bloom time is happening (searching a location and selecting most recent posts) and, on our earliest day off together, decided we’d better make our way over to our favourite local spot – Kariya Park – to see if the trees were in bloom there as well.
This past Wednesday, we got up early and drove the 40 minutes into Mississauga. We wanted to get there around 9am to beat the crowds and catch some nice morning light. Even that early, there were a bunch of people there already – and to our surprise – of the 30 or so sakura trees at Kariya Park, only ONE tree was in full bloom.
As it turns out, there is only a single somei yoshino variety of sakura there. These are the most famous ones that have 5 pinkish-white petals per blossom. That’s what most people think of when cherry blossoms come to mind. There are, however, many more varieties and they all have individual characteristics and bloom at differing times.
I’m not sure exactly which particular variety the other trees in the park are but I’ve at least narrowed down that the majority of them fall into the yaezakura category – they have larger, pink, multi-petal blossoms. They all had tons of buds ready to pop out at any second! (By the time this post and video are online, they will likely be at their peak.)
There is also one very tall weeping cherry (shidarezakura) by the second largest pond. It was also not yet in bloom this week, but should be very soon.
Even with just the buds, the trees were still lovely, giving the park a nice pink hue. And the single yoshino sakura was gorgeous! Three other photographers had the same idea we did and had staked out spots around the tree, taking shots from every single angle. (I felt kind of lame with my iPhone while Jason and the other photographers had “fancy cameras”. I still think I managed to get a couple of nice shots.) Take a look at our JWJ Instagram (for Karen’s ) and Twitter (for Jason’s) accounts to see our Kariya sakura photos.
Our main reason for visiting the park during sakura season was to have our own little hanami picnic. Hanami (花見 / はなみ) literally means “flower viewing” in Japanese and refers to the tradition of having an outing specifically to view flowers (mainly sakura), which usually consists of sitting under the trees and having a party. The word hanami also applies to the entire cherry blossom season.
Every year in Japan, hoards of people flock to public parks, lay out tarps under the sakura branches, and eat snacks and drink. I’m not sure how much blossom appreciation actually happens but it looks like a great time regardless.
The tarps are always the ubiquitous blue and snacks often include bento (lunch boxes) and traditional Japanese sweets and the drinks are almost always alcoholic. (These hanami parties can get a bit rowdy!) However, even though we DID bring our tarp with us, we didn’t sit because it’s been raining a lot lately and the ground was soaked. I was also too lazy to cook and prepare us some bento, so I just bought some onigiri (rice balls) at the mall food court. We didn’t have alcohol either – because A) it was only 9 in the morning and B) you can’t drink in parks in Canada. (You can in Japan though!)
I did pack our onigiri into a bento box. Just because I have one. LOL. (My friend Ames bought me a really cute Totoro one as a gift and I was happy to finally be able to use it.) And, although it wasn’t alcoholic, we did a taste test of a sakura-flavoured (??) cola I bought at a local Asian grocery store.
Jason surprised me by doing something completely unexpected when we were discussing what sakura flavour actually is. Make sure to watch for that! Haha. I guess that’s what happens when you make spur-of-the-moment, unplanned videos.
Our video also turned into a mini-tutorial on how to open an onigiri. It would seem straightforward but it’s more complex than it looks. Back in 2010 on our first trip, I thought I had understood how to do it but had never had one before and totally screwed it up. (There’s a video of that on my personal channel.) And even now, Jason didn’t realize the technology and thought that goes into onigiri packaging – and opened his own for the very first time.
An onigiri is a ball of rice with some sort of filling inside it, usually molded into a triangle shape. Most of the time, it comes wrapped in a piece of seaweed to keep the sticky rice off of your fingers. The ingenuity comes from the way that it’s packaged. If the seaweed were touching the rice for a long time (while it sat on a shelf in the store before you buy it, for instance), it would become limp and soft. No one wants that! Part of the appeal is the crispy wrapper. Therefore, there is a layer of plastic in between the rice and the seaweed which is peeled away with the outer layer after you break the seal. It’s brilliant!
It’s definitely one of my favourite snacks but it’s so hard to find around here and so expensive. In Japan, they are sold at every single convenience store, there is an endless variety of kinds, and I’ve never paid more than 170¥ for one. (They are usually only around 100-120¥.) There is only one store that I know of that even sells them here, they only have 2 kinds, and they are $3.99 each. Crazy.
I think onigiri will be the very first thing I eat when I get to Japan. 🍙