Ohanami–annual cherry blossom viewing parties. Apr09

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Ohanami–annual cherry blossom viewing parties.

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TV news anchors talk about it, daily. Newspapers report on its progress. Kyoto’s parks and Shinto Shrines are filled with parties of people celebrating it. And, this year, the display of cherry blossoms is especially vibrant. Unusually warm weather in March opened the blossoms earlier than usual. Then, recent unseasonably chilly weather has helped to keep them on the branches longer than usual.

On Tuesday night, I attended my tea group’s annual ohanami cherry blossom viewing party, held at Hirano Shinto Shrine.  The shrine is set up with temporary party pavilions that hold dozens of separate party groups.  Like other groups, we brought our own food.  Since several of our members are restauranteurs, we had a spectacular spread of sashimi, gyoza dumplings, very crisp deep fried chicken, crunchy pickled bamboo shoots, Chinese spring rolls, rice balls cooked with red beans, Hakkaisan sake and beer.

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I had a long chat with a member whose family shop in Kyoto has been selling matcha (powdered green tea) to tea enthusiasts for generations.   He recently completed a full year learning the family business on a tea farm in Uji, Japan’s oldest and most famous tea growing district.  I learned that matcha, like coffee, is best enjoyed soon after grinding.  Whereas most people buy their matcha in 100 gram cans, some tea devotees actually visit their shop once each week to buy 10 grams of the powered elixir.  Most people buy matcha by looking only at the price and never really understanding the differences among the dozens of other kinds of matcha in their inventory.   He promised to explain their product mix to me, the next time I visit them.

Our party ended, of course, with a round of tea sweets and matcha. And instead of paper cups suitable for a picnic at a shrine, we sat that evening under illuminated cherry trees and drank matcha from real tea bowls. The party organizers had arranged to serve the 35 party participants with bowls representing 35 different ceramic styles!