“Surely it is spring, for the fragrance of flowers circulated by the mountain breeze spreads throughout the peaks and valleys.”
This timeless reflection from Dogen Zenji’s world 761 years ago continues to echo throughout modern Japan at Easter time. Most Japanese will focus on the tradition of hanami, the custom of viewing springtime blossoms at their peak. Under the blossoming cherry and plum trees on Easter Sunday, families will spread out their picnics and enjoy springtime temperatures.
Easter is actually not very well-recognized in Japan where approximately one percent of the population is Christian. Western influences have generated an interest in Easter treats. Children cannot resist displays of cute wagashi shaped into balls with rabbit ears or into elaborate decorated eggs. Ice cream stores offer pink, blue, and yellow egg cups filled with confetti ice cream and jelly beans. It is no wonder that the white Easter Lily (lilium longiforum) known as teppou-yuri is native to Japan.
Although there are fewer than three million Christians in the archipelago, people will be attending Easter services in numerous churches of diverse denominations. Christianity arrived with the Portuguese in 1542, emerging primarily in western Japan. Easter will be celebrated at St. Xavier’s Church in Kagoshima, dedicated to Francis Xavier who was the first Christian missionary to Kyushu island.
Church services in Japan are multicultural events engaging people from many cultural heritages who celebrate Easter in different languages. Services are presented and hymns are sung in Japanese as well as Korean, Vietnamese, and English. As elsewhere, children dress in their finest clothing, carry Easter baskets, and enjoy egg hunts or rolls. Families return home to special dinners, their residences decorated with ikebana made from cherry-blossom branchlets.
The forecast for Easter Sunday predicts temperatures between 65°-70°F (18°-21°C) for Kagoshima, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo. People seeking an Easter hanami outing may enjoy a train ride to the cooler mountainous areas beyond Tokyo, since unseasonably warm weather has forced an early bloom in the cities. After hiking the trails near Mount Takao or even Mount Akagi, families can settle into celebratory Easter picnics of bento boxes containing yakitori, omelettes, and noodle salad. Once again, Dogen Zenji’s thoughts about spring serve as a metaphor for capturing the universal essence of Easter:
“When a single plum blossom opens, therein is held the awakening of the exquisite beauty of spring.”
– Dogen (1252)