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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Oh Sakura Up Yours!

"Zhongzheng (Road) Sunset"? No, not even a master songwriter such as Ray Davies would be able to find enough beauty in this typical scene to compose a beautiful song. The only thing moving about this image was the traffic.

As the Beatles once sang, I should've known better, but I couldn't help myself. The first warning sign on what is normally a quiet Tuesday afternoon was the unusual number of cars driving along Dōng​shān Road 東山路 headed toward the Dà​kēng 大坑 hiking area. The next one came when the cars started proceeding up the narrow mountain road towards the trail heads. Taking the long way around in an attempt to avoid this mysterious flow of traffic, I was surprised to find the parking lot for Trail No. 1 to be close to capacity. Even stranger was the number of cars parked alongside the road, again an extremely unusual sight for a non-holiday period weekday afternoon:

I couldn't imagine what had brought all these people out to go hiking, so I rode on to see what was going on. Just ahead the main access road leading down to Dōng​shān Road was blocked off with traffic cones, but I plunged between them on my scooter. The road became further clogged with parked vehicles, and groups of people walking alongside, with few of them looking like hikers. It wasn't long before the mystery was solved:

Cherry blossoms - what the Taiwanese call yīng​huā 櫻花, but which are more famously known in much of the rest of the world by their Japanese name, sakura 桜. This hillside is apparently a new addition to the Dà​kēng scene, for I had never noticed their presence in this area in previous years. Continuing my descent to Dōng​shān felt like descending Dante's nine circles of hell - each turn along the narrow road brought with it more parked vehicles, more cars and scooters making their way uphill and more clusters of people on foot:

While 95% of the vehicular and human traffic was ascending, I unfortunately found myself stuck behind a car that was attempting to make its way against the flow. It wasn't long before it hit a bottleneck - with cars parked along both sides of the road, there was only enough space for one car at a time to pass through. And as there was an unending stream of automobiles and scooters heading up, the driver in front was stuck (as far as I know, he might still be up there!), as was I waiting behind. After an interminable wait, I saw my chance - a gap in traffic just big enough for a scooter to squeeze through, which I proceeded to do. After a lot of careful maneuvering I finally reached Dōng​shān Road. What would normally have taken less than five minutes to ride down (or up) took somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 minutes!

Needless to say, hiking on the No. 1 Trail was out of the question this afternoon, even if most of the sightseers were there just to see the flowers. So I rode over to the parking lot for the Nos. 9 and 10 Trails. It wasn't surprising to see these paths busier than usual for a Tuesday - many people probably stopped by for some exercise on their way back from the sakura, and no doubt there were some frustrated hikers like myself coming here as part of their Plan B's. As a result, a number of the stalls which sell fruits, vegetables and various sundries (even shoes!) were open for business, as if it were a weekend and not a weekday afternoon:

In Taiwan, hiking and shopping go together like chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese's.

And now the rant (as if you weren't expecting one, right?). Why? Why do the good people of Taiwan, knowing full well that the crowds are going to be dense, that the traffic is going to be gridlocked, that they will have to park their cars hundreds of meters away (if not further) and walk (something they normally don't like doing), placing their bodies in jeopardy from the vehicular traffic passing by them just inches away, do so anyway? Is it really worth all the aggravation, noise and chaos (for there was precious little traffic control being done by the police this afternoon) just to see some pretty flowers on a small hillside? The actual area of blooming cherry trees wasn't that much bigger than in the photograph above - it isn't that much of an exaggeration to say that people outnumbered blossoms . To quote an old Discharge song, why, why, why but why?

If I had to hazard a guess, at least regarding this afternoon's scene, I would say the answer is accessibility. Taiwan isn't like Japan, where the sakura can be seen over most of the country, and the cherry blossom front (sakurazensen) 桜前線 is avidly tracked by many. For the most part on this island, people have to head into the mountains to see the flowers, and they do so, in droves (Ālǐshān 阿里山 being one of the places best avoided during this time of year). That isn't to say that Japan doesn't have crowd issues as well - the most popular spots for seeing sakura, such as Yoshino 吉野, are in danger of subsiding from the sheer number of visitors. But there are also more flowers to be seen in the famous places compared to Dà​kēng, and Japanese society being what it is, the chaos is better organized. But what was especially satisfying in Japan was the fact that it was rarely necessary to have to travel that far to see sakura - just a short distance by bicycle from where my wife and I lived in Yokkaichi 四日市 there was a cherry tree-lined stream that became a riot of pink and white petals in the early spring. There we were able to cycle under the cherry blossom canopy without having to dodge cars, motorcycles and people. If such a place existed in Taiwan, it would look very much like Dà​kēng did today. 

And I can only imagine what it will look like this weekend, especially on Sunday. To paraphrase Herbert Morrison: Oh, the idiocy!

Segue time: speaking of flowers, a local orchid did good in Japan, as this Yomiuri Shimbun 読売新聞 article in today's Daily Yomiuri ザ・デリー読売 explains:

"Spring Fire," a Rhynchostylis gigantea orchid grown by a flower producer in Taiwan, has won the Merit Award in the Individual Division of the Japan Grand Prix International Orchid Festival 2012.

Ching Hua Orchids Co. was the only foreign company to win an award in this year's Individual Division. The flower was also awarded the Royal Horticultural Society Trophy.

"Spring Fire" has deep green leaves and purple petals, and produces a strong fragrance. It was raised over 15 years by company President Kao Shui En, 66, and his 40-year-old son, Kao Chi Ching, the company's manager.

"As Japan was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake 東北地方太平洋沖地震 last year, we were concerned whether [the festival] would be held this year. We're glad it was and that the flower my father and I raised received high prizes," Kao Chi Ching said.

Chris Rehmann, chairman of the American Orchid Society and head of the awards committee, praised the orchid's color, brightness and size, saying they exceeded those of prizewinning orchids in the past.

The annual festival is organized by The Yomiuri Shimbun, NHK 日本放送協会 and others. It opened Saturday at Tōkyō Dome 東京ドーム in Bunkyō Ward 文京区, Tōkyō 東京 and will continue through Sunday. 

Here's a photograph of "Spring Fire":

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