26 04 2008

Accurate Blooming Schedule for Ohanami

It’s April in Tokyo and a Domino’s delivery person braves a snowstorm on her bicycle. She expertly weaves in and out of the drunks who crowd the street as they make their way to restrooms or back to their mats in the park. She stops at the edge of the park and makes a quick call on her cell phone. As she scans the crowd, she spots the waving group of merry makers and makes her way over to them, tiptoeing through the plastic tarps that cover the ground like a patchwork quilt.

“Sakura fubuki!” The pizza lovers yell after they settle their bill, as they toast the falling snowy white petals, or cherry blossom snowstorm. It’s good luck if they fall in your cup.

Thousands of people crowd the local park as they celebrate sakura, cherry blossoms, Japan’s official flower which signifies the coming of spring and the beginning of the school and fiscal years. To some Japanese, ohanami viewing parties simply present an excuse to spend an uninhibited weekend picnicking, drinking and singing impromptu karaoke with friends and family.

I took my local train to Kichi-joji, my favorite neighborhood for shopping and socializing, and exited on the park side of the station, which dumped me out onto the normally manageable pedestrian-dominated streets. Today was a different scene altogether. It took thirty minutes to navigate my way through an area that usually takes ten. I even tried my usual shortcuts down unknown alleyways but to no avail. The young and old from every neighboring town had emerged to enjoy the official weekend for ohanami.

As I turned down the street leading to Inokashira-koen, Inokashira Park, I passed vendors selling everything from yaki-tori, barbecued meat and vegetables on skewers, to American-style hot dogs. People were rushing in and out of konbini, convenience stores, to grab bags of chips and bottles of booze. Many stopped at the conveniently located Starbucks for a jolt of caffeine in preparation for the long, and possibly chilly, night ahead.

A successful ohanami requires planning and strategy. Typically, the lowest ranking company workers are sent to the parks with tarps to stake out an area until their colleagues join them later that evening. Partying in shifts is also an option. Night owls will often take over the site of a group that decides to go home at eleven or midnight.

I came at noon to take over the Guarding of the Tarp for our group. A friend of mine had arrived early in the morning to claim a prime spot under the trees, and hopefully, I thought to myself, equidistant to the public restrooms and sources of refreshment. More traditional picnickers cook their own food on portable mini-grills. My friends and I had decided to forgo this custom since none of us had a grill. We had planned a potluck picnic. I came bearing brownies and beer.

Every year at the beginning of sakura season, the sakura-zensen, sakura front line, helps people plan their ohanami celebrations. Maps indicating the dates when trees are expected to bloom are published in newspapers and featured hourly on the news with a specificity that is obsessive in detail. The delicate blossoms only last about a week, very often compared to the life of the ancient samurai who was fully prepared to sacrifice his life at any time for the cause of his master. A brief rain shower could destroy the petals in five minutes so careful scheduling of ohanami is essential.

Soon all of my friends arrived at the park and we settled in for a day of enjoying the beauty of the trees and each other’s company. Because we were quite a motley crew of gaijin, foreigners, Japanese and a mixture of other nationalities, we soon became the center of attention. We joined in singing traditional Japanese drinking songs and popular American ones. We shared corn and tuna fish pizzas and stories about our own cultures, sometimes with someone whose language we did not know and ended up understanding through charades and laughter.

Inokashira-koen is one of the most famous parks for ohanami in Tokyo. Located away from the city center, it has the feel of a small town. Its lake in the center with paddle boats available to rent by the hour allows celebrators a way to view the beautiful trees from a different perspective. The boats pierce through water that is blanketed with petals similar to the way some stagnant ponds are covered with scum and algae.

Besides pizza and beer or barbeque and sake, the culinary choices are endless. At the entrance of the park, the permanent fixtures are a yaki-tori stand, a gelato parlor and an Italian restaurant. Walk a little further and you have your choice of sushi bars, Indian, French and Hungarian cuisine. Combine those with the Starbucks, street vendors and deliverers, and it is impossible, even for the pickiest of eaters, to starve.

My friends and I celebrated all day and into the evening. After the sun went down, the weather turned chilly. It was only the first weekend in April. Our group of ten had grown to one of about twenty huddled together, sharing our small spot on the ground. We had made numerous trips to Starbucks and the konbini for whatever alcohol they had left, which led to bonding in lines at the overcrowded restrooms.

I asked two picnicking, karaoke-ing, sake drinking, celebrating Japanese, husband and wife, Hideo and Rie, what their typical image of celebrating sakura is.

Hideo said, “Drink, drink, drink, and drink – and girl hunting!”

“He is stupid,” said Rie, who summed up the meaning of sakura simply – they are a symbol of a new beginning meant to be shared with friends and family.

If you’re planning a trip to Japan, try to schedule it around the sakura. But check the sakura zen-sen for an accurate blooming schedule.



One response

9 02 2009
We model for GAP on the side. « The Life of Erin

[…] are too early for fully bloomed sakura and ohanami (I wrote about it here) but hopefully before we leave we will see some ume blossoms, which I sometimes think are even more […]

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