Wednesday April 6, 2011

Sakura Essence preserving memories

A few years ago, I met a Japanese woman living in Lexington. She and her husband, along with their young daughter, relocated to the Bluegrass while he did research work at the University of Kentucky.

We shared a similar level of fluency in each other’s language and a love for baking. Our friendship developed easily over the weeks, through volleys of e-mail and hours in the kitchen together. One week, I’d translate a favorite recipe into Japanese, have her to my house, and we’d make it together. Then we’d sit at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a slice of whatever we made and she’d correct my Japanese. The next week, we’d do the same thing at her house, but with a Japanese dessert and in English.

She taught me to make things like melonpan, cotton cheesecake, purin, and mochi. My vocabulary exploded as I learned heaps of new words not taught in the classroom, mixing, foaming, sifting and simmering (混ぜる, 泡立つ , ふるいに掛ける, 煮立てる respectively).

I taught her how to make classic American desserts like apple pie, chocolate chip cookies, and layer cake, and the meaning of the often awkward recipe speak found in cookbooks.

As spring approached, she grew nostalgic for Japan. She said the only thing she regretted about spending time abroad was missing hanami. She talked about her hometown and the beauty of ohanami, annual cherry blossom parties, and wondered if we even had sakura in Kentucky.

So one spring day, I called her and told her I had a surprise. That Lexington most certainly had sakura.

sakura stark against a winter sky

That day turned out to be a cultural twofer. Lexington does indeed have a mind blowing number of flowering cherry trees in all shapes and sizes: in the Lexington Cemetery.

This didn’t phase her in the least as one of Japan’s most famed cherry blossom viewing spots is found in Aoyama Cemetary. Ohanami has everything to do with the fragile balance between life and death, especially the brevity of life and the swiftness of death. Beauty in a cemetery doesn’t come across as even remotely creeptastic, but rather a natural dichotomy.

That day she and her daughter and I had had a wonderful mini-hanami together. She talked a lot about Japan and told me how jealous her friends would feel over her Kentucky hanami. When I expressed my utter disbelief over that, she insisted, “No, in Japan, you have to compete with many people to see the cherry blossoms. But here, we can enjoy a private viewing party.”

pink and white sakura, weeping cherry, cherry blossoms

Afterward, her spirits seemed visibly lifted. I felt like I’d done a good deed, alleviating her homesickness, even if just for a day.

She and her family have since returned to Japan. Mr. BraveTart and I have had the pleasure of traveling to Japan to visit them and enjoyed all the best parts of her hometown that she’d described to me years before.

Immediately after the earthquake, I called her. Her little family was safe, but her husband, a doctor, may soon travel to the disaster zone to help with the relief efforts. With all the talk of radiation levels rising in that area, I know she must worry for his safety.

However briefly, I called Japan “home” and it’s a place I will always long for; if I had the opportunity, I’d move there in a heartbeat. Until then, we save up and visit whenever we can. This triple-whammy of a disaster doesn’t feel like something happening on the other side of the world. It feels tangible.

I’ve talked with my other friends, living in all parts of Japan, and over the days and weeks since the quake, I’ve struggled more than usual with the language. I hadn’t ever needed words like “nuclear disaster,” “derailed” or even, “blackout.”

Words I wish I didn’t have to learn just to have a conversation with my friends.

The last time I talked with my friend, she said the cherry trees had started to bloom. I told her in Kentucky, they’d bloomed too, and that I was remembering our “private viewing party.”

sakura blossoms in winter

I’ve seen Ueno Koen transform one day at a time, from bare branches against winter skies to the explosion of palest pink that attracts absolutely unimaginable throngs of people for ohanami. I’ve heard the singing and laughter that fills the park, I’ve taken off my shoes to sit on a blue tarp and drink with friends. I’ve only done it once, but I’ll never forget.

This year, despite the disaster that has pummeled Japan, I imagined the hanami spots would be no less crowded with celebrants, grateful for another year, another spring, another hanami. Sakura represent the simultaneous beauty and frailty of life; and while this year that duality seems all too stark, it’s no less worth appreciating.

After so much tragedy, a chance to breathe, to smile, to reminisce with friends and family and celebrate something so quintessentially Japanese seemed the perfect antidote to bad news, heart break, and the overwhelming stress of the situation.

I felt shocked to hear Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has cancelled hanami.

Of course, I don’t have a nuanced understanding of Japanese politics, but this seems wrongheaded. I think, first and foremost, everyone’s heart needs lifting in this difficult time. But won’t a ban on hanami negatively impact their economy? What of the vendors, the merchants, the restaurants and myriad other businesses that rely on the seasonal hanami-boom?

sakura petals on the street, cherry blossoms at my feet

You may have started to wonder, by now, why I decided to write about this on my food blog.

This year, while many Japanese may choose not to celebrate hanami, I want to side with those who choose to celebrate anyway, to embrace the real meaning of hanami: that life is beautiful, and painfully short, we must enjoy it while we can.

So Rosco photographed these sakura and I’m working on another way to preserve them.

I’ve solicited cherry blossom donations from friends and family with Asian cherry trees, and have started work on making my own cherry blossom extract, or “Sakura Essence” as they call it in Japan.

I’ve started three different experiments. A batch of blossoms steeping in vodka. A batch dedicated to my first ever attempt at enfleurage. And finally, the bartender at Table 310 and I have set up bunsen burners and Erlenmeyer flasks to give steam distillation a go. (He graduated with a degree in chemical engineering, so I’m not totally insane…)

I have no recipes or process pictures to share yet, but in the meantime, I hope you enjoy Rosco’s photography.

If you’re looking for a way to help in Japan’s relief effort, please read this excellent article, A Donor’s Guide to Giving After a Disaster, which explains many aspects to donation/relief aid that most people don’t consider.

posted byStellaand filed under:  Sideshow Photos

11 comments and counting

Apr 06, 2011 ·  4:42 PM

What a beautiful post about a beautiful friendship and beautiful tree photos! I am hoping that most of the families in Japan will still celebrate hanami in the spirit of hope because that’s all any of us can really do…hope that the future will be brighter! I’m looking forward to hearing about how your experiments go!

 · Christina ·

Apr 06, 2011 ·  8:45 PM

Beautiful post, Stella. So touching!

I can’t wait to see what you come up with

 · Kaitlin ·

Apr 06, 2011 · 10:58 PM

Lovely photos. Lovely post.

 · Michelle ·

Apr 07, 2011 ·  3:48 AM

Such beautiful beautiful photos! I love this post!

 · Beth Michelle ·

Apr 07, 2011 ·  9:32 PM

Lovely post, lovely photos, lovely blog.

 · sarah ·

Apr 08, 2011 ·  2:12 PM

@Christina, thank you. I’ve talked with one of my American friend in Tokyo, and he said despite the unofficial ban (a “suggestion” from the Governor, not anything passed into law), many people are still celebrating, albeit with a bit more of a somber spirit.

@Kaitlin, nothing beats a bond formed in the kitchen! The sakura extract has about 4 weeks to go, and the enfleurage has a few more days. Then we shall see! Rosco already came in to take pix, so I’ll get to share soon.

@Michelle, Beth Michelle, and Sarah, thank you so much! I’d have nothing without Rosco taking the time to photograph the cherry blossoms. I want to order a print of that first one…


Apr 09, 2011 ·  4:02 AM

What a touching post. Cherry blossoms also have a dear place in my heart. My house in Korea is surrounded by them and when they bloom in the spring is quite beautiful. I hope that many people in Japan decide to find a way to celebrate even though the public events have been closed.

 · Jessica ·

Apr 11, 2011 · 10:45 AM

Jessica, wow, life in France and Korea? So jealous! When I was in school in Japan, all my classmates were Korean art students learning Japanese so they could work in anime firms in Tokyo; I ended up learning way more about Korean culture as a result. Now, I really really want to visit someday. Can I crash at your place?


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