Spring has arrived once again in Japan and the beloved cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom. The entire nation goes bonkers over these pink flowers (“sakura” in Japanese), and every park, garden, or riverbank within viewing distance of a cherry blossom tree is occupied by people sitting on plastic sheets, eating sushi and drinking shochu and beer. Yep, it’s yet another excuse to get drunk!
Particularly fun are the late-night parties in lit-up parks, especially if someone brings a portable karaoke machine. Spirits are high, and people get friendly. Popular Tokyo spots are Ueno park and Yoyogi park. Every time I head to the park for a cherry-blossom party, I seem to end up playing convoluted drinking games with amiable university students, and messing about, like an infant, on the climbing frames, slides and swings.
These cherry-blossom festivals (known as “hanami”) have been going on since at least the third century- the Japanese love of sakura runs deep. Imagery of pink petals is ubiquitous in Japan, in comics, animation, and about a million pop songs. According to Wikipedia, cherry blossoms stir emotions because they are “an enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life.”
As such, they were often associated with samurai, “for whom life was considered brief and beautiful, much like a cherry blossom”. With this in mind, the Yakuza gangsters often get cherry blossoms tattooed all over their backs. Unlike in the West, where flowers are considered a bit poofy, sakura is a macho symbol.
Everyone in Japan watches the news to follow the progress of the cherry blossom as it first appears in Okinawa in January and then works it’s way up through Southern Japan and arrives in Tokyo by the end of March/beginning of April, finally blooming in Hokkaido a few weeks later. This progress is always unpredictable. When I first arrived in Japan I arranged a hanami party in a park in advance, only to find that the sakura hadn’t blossomed, and the lights weren’t even switched on. So me and my friends ended up sitting like hobos, drinking cans of lager and shivering in a pitch-black, isolated park. I felt like a teenager again.