Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Hanami: a cherry blossom viewing party in Tokyo

April. A time of new beginnings: the school year, the fiscal year, the work year.

Cherry Blossoms up close

It's also the time for the blooming of the sakura: cherry blossoms. After a grim, colourless winter, the soft glow of the pink blossoms is music to the soul, as it breathes life back to the world, signalling the beginning of spring. Weather forcasts even track the progress of the bloom from south to north. Small wonder that Japan chose the sakura as its national flower.

Almost all schoolyards in Japan have several sakura trees along the grounds. Schools welcome the school year with the entrance ceremony for new students. But it just wouldn't feel complete without taking class pictures under the brilliant pink canopy of the sakura.

Picnicing under the trees

April is also the time for another Japanese tradition: the hanami. Nearly everyone from schoolchildren to company executives to retirees flock to the parks and riversides in droves to sit under the trees and bask in the shadow of the beautiful sakura. They also bring sweets, lunch, and of course, drink. The smell of barbecues surrounds you. Beer and sake flow like water. Time stops for a moment as people get back in touch with nature, even for only a short while.

I went to Yoyogi park in Harajuku, Tokyo, for a hanami party with my friends not too long ago. People began trickling into the park early in the morning to stake out their territory with tarps and blankets. By the time I arrived at a little past 1:30, the entire park was teeming with partygoers.

There were all manner of revelers on this day. Most opted for the slow, easy pace of a quiet picnic. Others got a little more lively, as they belted out songs and called for endless toasts.

Sounds system

One group even decided to bring out a full sound system. Yet, in a true testament of the Japanese value of harmony, they were polite enough to keep it to a dull roar.

On this day we were treated to a little something extra special. We got to see one of the most important beginnings in life: a wedding.

The happy bride

The bride was looking absolutely radiant, as crowds gathered around to snap pictures on their cell phones.

The groom's friends celebrating

Meanwhile, the groom's friends all gathered together to toss him in the air in a show of congratulations.

But like all things, the sakura don't last. In fact, within a scant week of blooming, the petals start to fall. As the winds start to blow stronger, the falling petals look like pink snowflakes as they drift in the breeze. They collect in small pockets on the ground, or in little eddies in the rivers below.

But as the warm pink subsides, it gives way to a soothing green. And while the sakura season is ever so short, it helps to remind us to sieze the opportunity, to soak up the experience for all that it's worth.


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