Anyone who persists in thinking the Japanese are an inscrutable, reserved people should get themselves a blue tarpaulin and join in the two-week eating-and-drinking bonanza that is Japanese hanami: the annual celebration of the blossoming cherry trees. In Tokyo, everywhere from Yasukuni Shrine to Yoyogi Park, groups of families, workers and friends gather to sit under pink cherry trees – the sakura - to eat piles of food and frequently drink themselves into a good-natured stupor.
The cherry front – the sakura zensen – that starts in Okinawa in February and sweeps north is reported by the Japan Meteorological Agency as earnestly as any weather system. This year, after a period of unseasonally warm weather, the cherries bloomed two weeks early in Tokyo. Disaster for all the official cherry-themed events – and there are many of them - but fine for everyone else. Crowds have been out in force this year, despite the fact that once the cherries did appear the weather took a chilly turn.
For some reason, drinking beer out of plastic cups and sitting on damp ground is not everyone’s idea of a good time. There was a curmudgeonly piece in the Japan Times this year entitled, “A personal invitation to the I-hate-cherry-blossom club”. This seems to miss the point entirely. Admittedly you might not want to be the person in the office who is charged with securing the best spot, spreading out the mat and then sitting or usually sleeping on it for a few hours until the rest of the party arrives, but it’s hard not to love Tokyo during hanami when it’s dusted with pink and filled with exuberant picnickers at every turn. It’s a uniquely inclusive social event, shared by millions up and down the country.
Shops sell sakura-flavoured food; restaurants have seasonal menus; breweries release hanami sake. Even Starbucks has been selling a Sakura White Chocolate Frappucino. The convenience stores – particularly those strategically placed next to popular cherry venues – take full advantage. My local combini [convenience store] is loaded with mats, hand-warmers, bento lunchboxes and tubs of skewered chicken. And, of course, the customary hanami dango: chewy rice dumplings in pink, green and white.
My only complaint is that while some days are warm enough for T-shirts, others call for a thick jacket. Somehow the Japanese seem to be impervious to the weather during hanami, happily picnicking outdoors regardless. They’ve been doing it for centuries, after all. After a five-hour hanami gathering last weekend, my hands were as cold as the picnic noodles and I had to admit defeat. I was the first to leave.
For some the collective socialising is a sideshow. The word hanami means flower viewing and many skip the group outings in search of a quiet spot. The transience of life is the symbolic point of this beautiful but brief burst of flowers. One heavy rain shower and it could all be over. The melancholy attached to hanami was never felt more poignantly than in the weeks after the earthquake in March two years ago when an act of natural destruction was followed closely by nature bursting into life.
Whether you’re one of thousands in a park or alone in a secluded temple, the arrival of spring is something to cheer. And those who missed this year’s unusually early display in Tokyo can always make their way up to Hokkaido, where the sakura season has yet to begin. One of the top spots is Maruyama Park in Sapporo where locals and visitors will be revelling under the 1,700 cherry trees until early May.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.