Drinking Under the Cherry Blossom

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.

5 Responses to Drinking Under the Cherry Blossom

  1. Hey Roaf, I’m looking forward to my first Hanami in Miyazaki this weekend. Heading over to Okinawa on Sunday…are they still blooming over there or what? Then it’s back home to Canada, unfortunately. BTW, great blog, I can relate to all of it. Japan certainly has some major differences from the North American culture. Too bad the transportation system is slow and expensive here…I didn’t get a chance to wander out past the borders of Miyazaki-ken…

  2. roaf says:

    Thanks! I always thought the Japanese transport system was great(although I don’t like not having a car.) I think the cherry blossoms are long gone in Okinawa by now, but who cares when there are bikinis and beach bars!

  3. desertgrace says:

    I am missing the cherry blossoms so much! after 11 spring times and 11 hanamis in Japan I am missing it like hell =(

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