Before all the craziness of school started, we spent a Sunday afternoon viewing cherry blossoms (sakura). The activity is called Hanami, which translates directly to flower viewing. This is a very traditional activity in Japan and it makes for an air of the afternoon before the 4th of July, without any of the fireworks. The sakura only bloom for a few weeks, so it’s a very distinct marker that spring has arrived. The feeling of renewal and beginnings is so deeply associated with sakura in hearts of the Japanese that you’ll see sakura blooming at the beginning of every Japanese film (this is not that much of an exaggeration).
This year has been a bit strange as we just got snow in Tokyo this weekend, and this cold spell has confused the sakura into blooming much longer than usual.
I’m told that the news actually devotes part of the weather segment to following the sakura “front” as the trees start blooming south to north. In fact, I hear that there are tour buses for people who want to follow the blooming. I was too late in my arrival to witness the beginning of the blooming, and thus missed out on the special weather reports.
The typical hanami experience starts with selecting your sakura tree at the local park. If you start early, you can have any tree you want, but if you come in the afternoon, as we did, you will be hard pressed to find a tree. The ideal tree is one which will shower you with sakura peddles (well, that was my impression anyway). Once you’ve selected your tree, you can lay out your picnic blanket and get started. We had CostCo rotisserie chicken, but more typical yakitori or other traditional Japanese food is the norm. The Japanese beer industry has been pushing really hard through advertising to get people to accept the idea that a beer is exactly what they want on a warm afternoon under the sakura trees, so this is now the drink of choice. Make sure to bring sunscreen.
Sitting there watching the scores of other groups picnicking, it was easy to imagine this tradition going back hundreds of years. The general feeling was that of the beginning of a new year. Everyone seemed excited and upbeat, welcoming friends to their picnics, telling jokes, and toasting. Along with the beginning of spring, April is also the beginning of the year for schools.