Cherry-blossom viewing season – hanami – is here again in Japan and with it the usual weather extremes that run from torrential rain and howling gales to unseasonal warmth and sunshine. Tokyo citizens are used to it and picnic on their blue tarpaulins regardless.
At this time of year it’s a common sight to see an empty stretch of canvas laid out under a particularly good cherry tree. Usually there’s nobody sitting on it – or at most a sleeping worker who has been dispatched to save the spot. The real action begins later in the day but by then the best trees have all been taken. Staking out a place has been standard practice for years. So, imagine the shock this year when the city government announced that unattended tarpaulins would be removed.
Not only that, the Tokyo city hall said that it was introducing a whole list of rules in its drive to improve hanami manners, specifically in Ueno Park, which has been a top cherry-viewing venue since the Edo period and attracts two million visitors during the season. The rules are mostly common sense: don’t damage the trees, don’t leave rubbish, don’t drink too much or disturb the people around you and end parties by 20.00 when the paper lanterns that hang from the trees will be switched off. Leaving rubbish out is a terrible idea anyway since Tokyo’s population of larcenous crows will hop on a picnic mat in search of leftovers in no time. Apparently it was also necessary for a rule to ban fires for cooking or any other purpose, which makes you wonder what people have been getting up to.
Concerns that hanami revellers have been getting later and louder are not restricted to Ueno Park. The city government had already clamped down on picnics in Aoyama Cemetery – at one time a popular viewing spot lined with food stalls. Volunteers have been handing out rubbish bags in Yoyogi Park this year although perhaps it’s a sign of how law-abiding Tokyo citizens are that picnickers not separating their rubbish correctly is considered an issue of public concern.
Retailers are reporting that sales of bento lunches are up on last year, particularly the more expensive ones. Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo has 600 cherry trees and last weekend thousands of people strolled in the spring sunshine enjoying live enka singing and food from dozens of stalls selling grilled fish and chocolate-dipped bananas. Traditional music and dancing were taking place on the shrine’s open-air stage and there were many Asian tourists joining in the fun and apparently oblivious to the politics of a controversial shrine more usually associated with the Japanese war dead. Manner infringements were not on display.
The city government is clearly taking its manners campaign in Ueno Park seriously – it has even come up with a mascot for the purpose. The cute new cartoon enforcer is Uenon, a cheery anthropomorphised cherry flower with a U on her green dress. Litter violators beware.
Fiona Wilson is Asia bureau chief for Monocle.