Friday, April 15, 2005
Falling, Fallen, Gone
A full day of rain on Monday brought the 2005 hanami season to an end (hanami means viewing of flowers). Cherry blossom petals floated down in twirling dances from the branches and landed on every horizontal surface within reach: playgrounds, stairs, cars, drinking fountains… Overnight, the trees gave up their white geisha makeup and sprouted the freshest shade of spring green.
Even though this is my fifth hanami in Japan, I never seem to tire of this event. I love seeing the sea of white froth on treetops, even though they make all the photos look blanched. I also cherish all the times when I turn a street corner and come face to face with one single sakura tree in all of its full blooming glory. But this year’s hanami was truly the best I’d ever experienced (best weather, best flower, and best of all, I didn’t have to work so I went hanami-ing everyday for seven days straight) so I’m going to attempt to highlight some of the interesting parts of this phenomenon that is so uniquely Japan.
Such is the obsession with hanami that weeks before any sakura tree even showed any signs of a flower bud, you could find out the predicted date of blossom on the internet, categorized by city and by individual parks. (Because sakuras bloom so briefly, it is essential to catch them at the peak.) From what I can tell, when most of the sakura trees are about 50% blooming, the madness of hanami is officially in full swing.
First, you have to understand that everybody in Japan (everybody plus everybody’s visiting friends and family, plus everybody’s dog) comes out for hanami, so crowds is as much a part of hanami as alcohol and food. Due to this massive spillage of people to limited coveted spaces under the sakura tree, it is essential that someone goes early to reserve the space for the entire group. In an office, the most junior person is usually entrusted with this important task. On my morning walk last Friday, before the big hanami weekend, I saw a variety of place markers, from carefully taped down blue tarps, to a few pieces of haphazardly placed newspapers with a name written on it. It’s strictly a first-come-first-serve system and no one questions the authority of a little piece of paper. When dusk falls, large groups of people will descend on their “reserved” spot, lay down food and drinks, and proceed to hanami.
I also discovered that Japanese people have no qualms about where they go to hanami, as long as there are sakura trees, hence the strange sight of people eating, laughing and drinking to a stupor in the middle of a cemetery (Aoyama cemetery has a large number of sakura trees). There are even food stalls set up among the tombs specifically to serve the hanami crowd. Whatever happened to respecting the dead?
Besides looking at sakuras, I also look at people photographing them. I look at their cameras, their tripods, the kind of bags they carry their equipment in, and the angle they are taking a particular shot. I think the national hobby of Japanese people has got to be photography, and nothing brings out amateur photographers (yours truly included) in drones more than hanami season. There are the obasans and ojisans toting cameras with lens the size of a daikon on one end of the spectrum; on the other end are the young people with their cellphone cameras. My favorite hanami photographers this year is this couple. The husband carries all the photography equipment, and lovingly holds an umbrella over his wife’s head so she doesn’t get sun-burned. How sweet!
So this concludes the 2005 hanami season. It was good when it lasted, but now that it's over, spring can begin! Yippy!