On the Ephemeral Nature of the Starbucks Sakura Latte

Maybe a Sakura Latte is not weird.

It’s getting hard to tell. After months of figuring out Japanese culture, my go-to instinct is still bewilderment. Starbucks had primed me for the Sakura Latte since Feb. 10 with a small sign that said: “Coming Soon. SAKURA!” When the cherry-flavored latte finally arrived, it was delicious. Case closed: Japan is not that weird.

Come March, we’ll be in Cherry Blossom (Sakura) season. It will sweep the nation into a picnicking frenzy laced with Japan’s twist on existential ennui: Mono No Aware, recognizing the passing of the ephemeral.

Wikipedia says, “[Mono No Aware] describes beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing.”

It is, simply put, acknowledging the passing of time. Western cultures need to use bigger words – transience, awareness, the ephemeral – because we’ve been mislead into thinking that the passage of time is no big deal. Americans move through time. In Japan, time leaves you behind.

This is everywhere in Japanese culture. Mono No Aware is the driving force behind everything distinctly “Japanese,” from Haiku to Cherry Blossom viewing to baths to the nation’s photography obsession. All of it captures the fleeting and reminds us of what has left us. We’re left documenting what will soon be nostalgia.

In Japan, photographs and haiku poetry both strive toward understatement and an absent observer. Haiku should be egoless; photography should be instant. The famous Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama is known for rarely looking through his viewfinder. The Japanese new-wave film director Ozu Yosijiro placed a camera on the floor for many of his movies, regardless of how far away the actors had to be.

The presence of an “artist” corrupts what Japanese art often strives to capture: The world that has gone by.

Comparing Apples and Cherry Blossoms
“The blossoms of the Japanese cherry trees are intrinsically no more beautiful than those of, say, the pear or the apple tree: they are more highly valued because of their transience, since they usually begin to fall within a week of their first appearing. It is precisely the evanescence of their beauty that evokes the wistful feeling of mono no aware in the viewer.”Stanford

And so it is with the Sakura Latte, its evanescent beauty evoking wistful feelings. The Sakura Latte is more Japanese than its flavor, even if the American Starbucks offers limited-edition seasonal blends or drinks.

Temporary, limited-edition products are everywhere. Stores shift their merchandise constantly. Not just brands or models, but entire genres of merchandise often disappear. Soft drink companies put out limited-edition sodas. Japan has a distinct fondness for limited-edition foods.

Consider the Kit-Kat. Since Christmas, we’ve had strawberry shortcake (the flavor of Japan’s traditional Christmas cake). It just changed to a boring (though delicious) white chocolate bar. Soda changes, too – a Green Cola I found in Nagasaki last week is already impossible to track down; Hazelnut Pepsi is getting obscure.

I’m often asked about scoring Green Tea Pepsi or Melon Kit-Kats, things that snack-food fetishists the world over have come to associate with Japan. But these products are usually available for about six weeks, if they’re successful, and two-to-three weeks if they aren’t.

It’s no surprise that no one walks and drinks vending machine beverages at the same time. It’s like the commercial residue of a deep spiritual tradition of observing the passing of time, sponsored by Suntory.

If you ignore the western irony about corporate coffee and focus on Japan’s deep respect for food, it’s not too far a stretch to claim there is something almost transcendental about the limited availability of the Starbucks Sakura latte.

I’m drinking it on a rainy day at the cafe’s window beneath a six-story bookstore, watching people pass in umbrellas. The rain stops. The passersby move on, the rain stops and I finish my latte. I rise to leave and this scene is over, present only in the coffee cup I’m about to toss away.

For a nation with such a passive but deep-rooted spiritual tradition, it’s almost impossible to imagine marketers ignoring it.

Hanami Parties
Hanami is the springtime tradition of barbecue picnics out in the cherry blossoms. They involve wholesome grilling and picnics and copious amounts of sake. They can get pretty raucous and older people have taken to plum-growth watching to get away from rowdy kids and their booze.

But the underlying principle of the cherry blossom is that it is a temporary kind of beauty; it’s here and it passes. I’ve documented Japan’s relationship with ruins here before, but cherry blossom viewing touches that same spot in the Japanese heart: Watching beauty, aware that it will decline, and letting it be.

Issa, a famous Japanese Haiku writer:
A world of grief and pain,
but the flowers bloom
even then…

To which modern Japan might answer:
A world of grief and pain,
but the flowers bloom,
let’s have a Coke.

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17 Responses to On the Ephemeral Nature of the Starbucks Sakura Latte

  1. Blue Shoe says:

    Have you tried that latte? I did last year…thought it was way too sweet.

    • owwls says:

      I did, and love it, but I have a fondness for Japanese “sweet” stuff.

      I actually think it makes a mockery of cherry flavors in the US. The Sakura Latte actually preserves some of the bitterness of the cherry, so the sweetness isn’t totally debilitating.

      I have also had the Sakura Frappaccino and Sakura Scone. Next up is the Sakura Soft Creme (not at Starbucks).

      [Ironically, I never drank SBucks in the US. But standard Japanese Coffee leaves me little choice.]

  2. R says:

    It seems the major difference between the passage of time in Japan and in America is one of our mind’s positioning within the flow of time. By that I mean, to Americans, transience is a threat. Our eyes are looking forward, toward a set of goals, so the present, as means to our always-updating, always-in-the-distance end, must be SEIZED and exploited. The past was never leaving, but is gone now. And the past is usually regret. Regret for lived past, regret for a past that didn’t lead to the desired present…

    To cushion my past in my future I’ll buy 10 boxes of Melon Kit Kats, consuming each one with a mind to the future, repeatedly counting how many I have left, feeling guilty for not saving more for later… There is no flow, there is just a series of steps.

    The game Passage (Jason Rohrer) was the first thing that came to mind as I started reading this. My experience of the game is firmly from the American camp: one of appreciation of great art, but also of depression that our lives are themselves so ephemeral. That is, it brings awareness to the limitations of time and so is a bit of a kick in the butt to “do something with your life before it’s too late.” Rather than smelling flowers, it made me feel like I needed to publish more. I wonder what people in Japan would get from it.

    I’m envious of the ability to appreciate the beauty and sadness in the passage of time. Maybe that’s why so many of the self-help gurus in America have clear Eastern influences.

    I mean, I’m totally talking out my ass, but we’ve had to read a lot of Deleuze lately so that’s what I’m being taught to do.

    I like this post a lot. You should work this into something bigger.

    • owwls says:

      You can look at pictures and remember, or you can eat a Kit-Kat and remember.

      By the way, the Matcha Kit-Kat has (temporarily) returned. So now you can relive the last time there was Matcha Kit-Kat. (2007?)

    • Blue Shoe says:

      I’m sorry if it comes across as culturally insensitive, but I think that (wabi-sabi) stuff is kind of asinine. First off, it’s my experience that many Japanese, especially young people, aren’t really that spiritual and don’t think about that kind of thing. They don’t philosophize about the passing of time. My girlfriend is 23 now, and it wasn’t until very recently that she really started to give any thought to what happens when you die. Japan’s society has before more material and worldly than it once was.

      The other day I was talking to the teacher who sits next to me about something and she brought up wabi-sabi. I asked her what that meant, and both she and two other teachers in the area kind of ashamedly couldn’t really say what it was. We all had to look at the Japanese Wikipedia entry together. And it is rather bleak and nihilistic.

      I also talked to a teacher who was lamenting the fact that Japanese people aren’t as religious as Americans are (he himself isn’t religious but likes to study various religions). He told me in all seriousness that he thinks it’s already causing problems with the Japanese family life that will only get worse in the future.

      Japan has only a shade of the spirituality it once possessed, but I think many people looking in don’t realize it.

      • owwls says:

        Long reply, just because this is stuff I am interested in. :)

        Japanese spirituality isn’t remotely like Western religion, in theory or practice, but it permeates the culture anyway – just as an Atheist in America still has Sundays off and gets gifts on Christmas. That’s why I was saying it was a “passive, but deep-rooted” spirituality.

        Japan is highly secularized, but the traditions that it follows are still based in Shinto and Buddhism, whether or not Japanese people are aware of it. A person doesn’t have to know why they are going to a cherry blossom festival, or bathing every day, to enjoy it, but the roots are in Shinto/Buddhist practice.

        That said, things like Wabi-Sabe may not be of interest to many, but it is certainly a part of the art, design and architecture fields. I doubt you could find an artisan or craftsman who doesn’t know wabi-sabe. (And to be fair to your co-workers, the translation of wabi-sabe in English is still “wabi-sabe,” because the term is so foreign, like “schadenfreude”).

        So, yeah: Japanese people as a whole aren’t constantly reflecting on the passage of time when they drink lattes, and I didn’t want to impose that vision on any reader. I’m just saying what the roots of the practice are; and why Japan is, historically, rooted towards cycles and seasons in such a particular way.

        That said, though, I’ve read a few articles that talk about how many Japanese people don’t consider themselves “Religious” even if they go to shrines every day. Part of it, I guess, is because the word “religion” is kind of foreign, and doesn’t really relate to the practice as prescribed by Zen or Shinto, which have practically nothing in common with Western “religion.”

        The best I can understand is that, on both sides, we are using the word “religion” as vague approximations of what the other side means.

      • R says:

        Going by the concept as I know it (which is not as well as Eryk), I would even go one step further to say that it’s exemplary of a positive materialism (not religious/spiritual at ALL).

        From what I understand, mono no aware/wabi-sabi makes a pretty compelling argument against the assumption that underlies ideas like that of your teacher friend when he/she suggested lack of religion might be damaging family values. It’s an ethical, interconnected existence with things not in the pantheistic sense but in the nonspiritual materialistic sense. Like if Christianity wasn’t part of American history and we knew family values by other means.

        I’m not bashing spirituality as a source of values; just an example to argue it’s not the only way.

        I seem to have latched onto this term I just learned last week pretty hard :)

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  4. Blue Shoe says:

    Interesting discussion, I think, too.

    That’s a good point. I thought about atheists in America, too.

    You’re right, the old ways do still permeate the culture. The teacher who told me Japanese aren’t spiritual (different from religious) enough made that point, too. As an example he said Japanese people are probably more likely to have feelings towards inanimate objects than most Westerners. He pushed a broom onto the floor and said many Japanese may feel or say something like “poor broom” even though it’s not alive. That’s because animism is an element of Shinto. It’s become kind of vestigial, though, in the sense that like you said. It’s kind of just something people do because it’s what they do. It’s lost its meaning, which I find kind of sad.

    And about wabi-sabi (alternate spelling, I guess?), I was talking to them in Japanese, asking them to explain it, but they couldn’t. I just mean that I think it’s kind of a confusing idea and very difficult to understand for anyone, even Japanese. It’s all well and good to say that “Japanese people can appreciate and enjoy the transience of life” for example, and quite another to actually understand what it feels like to “enjoy the transience” of anything.

    And sorry if it seem(s/ed) like I was taking aim at anything you said. I was more so addressing R, but also just kind of trying to make an independent point.

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