The Sakura and Hanami

You know spring has finally come in Japan when all the “sakura”, the infamous cherry blossom trees, have sprung in to bloom. They supposedly arrived early this year and the flowers started to appear a couple of weeks ago. For the Japanese, its a time of year that brings around change and a fresh start to life, as the blossoms miraculously coincide with the new financial year and school years in Japan. Therefore it is a really special time in Japan as everything becomes revolved around these trees for the oddly short amount of time they are in bloom. They even have daily coverage on the news keeping everyone informed about which areas of Japan are starting to blossom and what percentage of full bloom the trees have achieved. I am lucky enough to have a good spot really near my house, the little Suwa Shrine, so every day on the way to work I would be able to notice the progress of the bloomage. Also Teru took me took a place in Kuki on the way to the kindergarten to admire another good spot. Not that surprising but the street was called “Sakura-dori” or cherry-blossom street. It was pretty nice, breathing the fresh air, slightly scented by the flowers all around and seeing the locals enjoying this too, walking their dogs or with their families, just enjoying the arrival of spring time. Although I was itching to witness and be part of the main act of the cherry blossom season, “hanami”, or literally flower watching. The literal translation might sound dull but it fact it is much more exciting. People amass under sakura trees at the greatest known spots around Japan and set themselves up with food, drink and friends to basically have one mega picnic/barbeque/piss up/romantic date/social bonanza…Japanese style.

So on my day off at the weekend I prepared myself to go to Ueno park for my own hanami experience. Ueno park is notoriously one of the best places in Japan for hanami and has been so for hundreds of years. I arranged to meet a friend at the station exit, although when arriving there it was pretty obvious that something was going on as it was even busy by Tokyo standards, and noticeably, there were so many tourists around. I got approached by these two German guys who asked if I was there for a couch surfing organized event. They had me mistaken but I was glad to help them get hold of the organizer with the help of my Japanese mobile. In the end it all escalated into various people joining in on this organized event, but the actual guy who created this event never showed up. Anyway the group of tag-a-longs, me included, all gathered under our designated spot under the trees in Ueno park. I am quite thankful that I joined this group as I would not have found a spot to sit otherwise. It a competitive game to get the best spots under the trees as people arrive extremely early to place their tarpaulin down, marking their hanami territory. Our group got on with our drinking and snacking enjoying the spring time air an occasional shower of pink petals. Everyone that joined brought a handful of goodies to share about, some a little stranger than others. I tried some dried squid that was almost like the texture and edibility of beef-jerky but with a suspicious fishy taste. I just brought gin and tonic, which I thought would suffice. I could not help but admire the setups around us. Two younger businessmen had be working hard for around and hour setting up tables made out of cardboard boxes and neatly placing beer and all of the best Japanese style munch neatly on each make shift table. It was like a properly catered party by the time the rest of their older co-workers arrived. Dusk crept in and all the lanterns lined up amongst the trees started to glow, while everyone got more and more merry. I tried to introduce myself to the group of Japanese businessmen next to us only with great success. The welcomed me to their group handing me some chopsticks and wanting me to try some of their delicacies. They admired my ability to use chopsticks and my poorly constructed Japanese, which I think highly amused by both me and them.

As it started to get a bit cold, people started to dismantle their shanty tables and fashion them as box jackets. It is highly amusing to witness a man in a suit using a cardboard box as an overcoat, and my friend could not help but box-up next to one for a photo opportunity.  Our group also decided it was too cold so headed on to a “shabu shabu” izakaya. “Shabu shabu” is an onomatopoetic name derived from the sound when dipping in thinly sliced beef and vegetables into a big bubbling pot that are placed on each table. It sounds all fancy with its hands on approach and that but this izakaya was “tabehodai” and “nomihodai”, which is basically drink and eat as much as you want. I was extremely pissed by this point and I do not think that the “nomihodai” (all you can drink) did me any good. I remember having fun playing with the food but can not remember much past that. I had to leave to catch the train home as I had an early start at work the next day, but in good spirits managed to get the rest of the izakaya involved in a massive group photo. It seems that everyone around hanami time is very willing to have fun and let loose a little. I felt like I had a good experience of hanami. I think I did what you should do; have fun under some sakura trees, socialize with some local businessmen and of course get really drunk. Now all the sakura trees have shed their leaves, leaving the ground tainted pink, almost as a reminder to focus on the new things that await.

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