Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Hanami – adoration of cherry blossoms

My first encounter with cherry blossoms was back in the mid-90s in Washington DC of all places. I was working as a Fulbright exchange teacher in Virginia for a year, only 30 minutes by metro from the capital. There are some 1,700 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, donated as a sign of friendship by the mayor of Tokyo in the early 20th century. They offer a spectacular display of beauty in spring. I remember going there several times, to admire the first small pinkish blooms, through to the peak time and all the way to the end of the fragile petals falling on the ground, white as if it was snowing. At the weekend, we also saw a lot of Asian, and other people enjoying picnics under the blooming trees.

Ever since then, cherry blossoms have held a special place in my memory and heart. They are an annual reminder of the fleeting nature of life. So breathtakingly beautiful, but so short-lived at the same time! Recently, I have been more than pleased to see that some cherry trees have been planted along the riverside, and elsewhere, here in my hometown of Turku in Finland. This spring I have been cycling around with my camera to capture some of this floral splendour. It’s good for your soul to just sit or stand underneath a canopy of blooming trees, taking in the subtle colours of the petals, which quiver helplessly in the slightest breeze. So fragile that you feel as if you need to protect the tiny blossoms with your hands.

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One Sunday, I happened to be cycling along the river, and came across some cherry trees that I had never even noticed before. The blossoms were already coming to the end of their time, and had turned gorgeously white. They made me think of a full, lacy wedding dress – what a lovely thought!

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My project for next year is to start early enough, probably towards the end of April, and go round all the different trees I now know of, and enjoy the whole, swift blooming cycle. Unfortunately, our town doesn’t enlighten us of the different species of cherries they have planted. So, finding that out will be part of this project, too. ‘Mindfulness’ is one of the new fads here, and I feel enjoying the nature around us is the best form of mindfulness you can engage in – and it’s all free!

HANAMI FESTIVAL IN HELSINKI

I was lucky to notice an ad for a cherry blossom festival in Helsinki somewhere in my social media feed. It falling on a weekday religious holiday, made me convince hubby that we needed to go. It was actually the 8th time this festival was organised in the suburb of Roihuvuori in Helsinki, where over 200 cherry trees have been planted along a hill in a park. It was interesting to find out on a website that just as in Washington DC, these trees, too, are thanks to donations, this time by Japanese nationals residing here in Finland.

According to Wikipedia, HANAMI, or “flower viewing” means:

the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, flowers (“hana”) in this case almost always referring to those of the cherry (“sakura”) or, less frequently, plum (“ume”) trees

It was a windy day, and a bit on the cool side. We even had a hail storm pour over us in the afternoon! But the weather didn’t prevent thousands of people from having a good time underneath the trees. Arriving by train, after a two-hour journey, we were there early, and managed to see the trees better than later on when all the participants were milling around and setting up their picnic spots.

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I was especially pleased to see people of all ages taking part in the festival. Too often the Finnish custom is to separate the generations, each to their own specific activities. Lots of young families came with their babies, toddlers and pre-teens, many of whom wore creative fancy dresses for the occasion.

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The cosplay and anime crowd were there, too, with the most elaborate costumes. It was all quite delightfully unexpected for us but, of course, so much part of Japanese culture. Made me remember our trip to Japan, and a visit to Harajuku district in Tokyo where imaginative teens gathered to show off their sometimes quite outrageous fashions and styles.

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Initially, I had a very stereotypical expectation of the festival: a sophisticated, serene, almost solemn occasion, with possibly some faint, traditional Japanese music in the background, and people staring at the blossoming trees in quiet awe and adoration. Couldn’t have been more wrong! Little did I know, that people would bring boom boxes and other music devices, and play really loud rock and pop. What’s more, there were also music and Japanese martial arts performances on a stage, which added to the noise. Well, why not! Everybody to their own, and possibly this is the way ‘hanami’ is celebrated in Japan.

Definitely an occasion to mark in our diaries for next year. It was refreshingly different for Finland. Firstly, so crowded, and such a diverse and colourful group as well, with happy faces all around. Secondly, the joyful activity all through the day, Japanese food being cooked and sold in stalls, all the fascinating shows and performances. Thirdly, meeting friends for a chat and picnic on the lawn. And last but not least, the feeling of wonder, magic and fairy tale,  thanks to wonderful creatures such as this spring butterfly, for example.

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The message of the cherry blossoms for me was ‘carpe diem’. Seize the day, and ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ as it’s all too soon over.

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Weekend in jail

Attending a friend’s 50th birthday party in Helsinki on Saturday, gave us a welcome short break to stay in the capital for the night. I had heard about the Katajanokka Prison Hotel from a friend earlier, and it certainly sounded worth a try. Not cheap but not the dearest either, bearing in mind the fairly elevated Helsinki hotel prices.

Entering inside the red brick walls felt ominous, to say the least. And soon enough, we were LITERALLY behind bars!

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And the same quite authentic prison atmosphere continued inside the building. Beyond the reception, the corridor was almost exactly as you might have expected it to be when the prison still housed inmates, as late as the early 2000s. I expected the doors open any minute, to let the prisoners out for a walk! The refurbishment was well done, respecting the history of the building. We had chosen the cheapest and smallest possible room, without a bathtub, but found it very comfortable and fully equipped with an iron, and ironing board, hairdryer, minibar and free wi-fi. A nice touch was the kettle and tea and coffee provided in the room plus free wi-fi, which are rare in Finnish hotels. Even if small, somehow the height of the room made it seem airy and comfortable. And the out of reach windows high on the wall let my imagination run wild, conjuring up plots of escape.

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We definitely had a good night’s sleep, and didn’t hear a peep from anywhere, possibly thanks to the extra thick prison walls. One word of warning, though – do close the curtains as the shadows on the walls from the night lights outside can be rather spooky!  However, in the morning it is good to open them again to enjoy the first light streaming through the pink curtains. Breakfast was served downstairs in the windowless, candle-lit basement. They still use the old metal plates and mugs but the breakfast itself was a full Scandinavian-style buffet with something for many different tastes. Especially nice was the selection of different jams in rustic glass jars, and the open kitchen with the chef  waiting to fry your eggs on demand.

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In the restaurant area, you can also visit an original isolation cell and a group cell from the 19th century. Anyone staying in them definitely didn’t enjoy any mod cons or creature comforts! It was nice to see that the prison theme was utilised in different parts of the hotel. For example, using one of the city bikes provided at the entrance, made you ‘a runaway’, and at the reception, you could buy theme-related souvenirs, such as mugs or even pairs of hand cuffs. All in all, this commercialisation of the theme was done in good taste, not forced down your throat, in my opinion.

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I can warmly recommend this hotel to anyone interested in something other than your regular hotel chains. The icing on the cake is the location in the charming neighbourhood of Katajanokka, a small island, separated from mainland Helsinki by a narrow canal. Weather permitting, it’s a good idea to walk around the island along the seaside path. Not only can Katajanokka boast with a lot of beautiful Jugend-style architecture, but it is also home to the Finnish foreign ministry in an originally Russian army building, and the huge Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. We were lucky, and took a leisurely stroll back to the railway station. Managed to get some more vitamin D for the winter in the gorgeous autumn sunshine!

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