It’s that time of year when armies of sakura (cherry blossom) trees in Tokyo stand poised to break into bloom and people are finalizing plans for hanami, or cherry blossom viewing parties. This yearly ritual, which takes place all over Japan, is a tradition that’s been around for over a thousand years, as sakura are a beloved and important symbol in Japanese culture.
Multitudes of cherry blossoms will bloom in lavish displays of wonderful pink magic all over Japan, starting on the southern island of Kyushu in early March and moving north to Hokkaido by the end of May. Weekly and then daily newspaper and Internet updates inform local populations on the progress of the blooms from initial buds (10 percent, then 20 percent, etc.) to the final full display (mompai!). Sakura last for only a few short days making their beauty seem ephemeral and precious, a visual reminder of not only life’s beauty, but also that human existence is precious and short-lived.
Sakura season is a great time to explore Tokyo’s many neighborhoods and mingle with local residents. Families, groups of friends and coworkers gather to celebrate life while sitting under sakura trees planted in public parks, along rivers and in cemeteries.
You can visit during the day, but the real action takes place at night after work, when there are large evening hanami in almost every park and large cemetery – a prime spot for blossom peeping, as it happens – in Tokyo. People gather in groups of ten, 20 or even 30. One or two of the younger workers in an office are often sent ahead during the afternoon to stake out a prime spot. While the weather is temperate in April, the ground can be damp and hanami participants sit on sheets of blue plastic. Starting around 3 or 4 p.m., you can see the hanami pioneers laying down the plastic and usually napping as they hold the group spot until sundown. The second wave of participants brings food and drinks. The late workers just show up and start celebrating.
Food and drink are essential elements to every hanami. Just about anything goes for hanami fare, especially at night. Foodstuffs are purchased anywhere from the local depachika (department store) food halls to convenience stores. Mounds of senbei rice crackers, dried cod, butter peanuts, potato chips, etc. appear on paper plates. Upscale revelers tote in platters of sushi and grilled skewers of chicken yakitori. The main event, however, is the alcohol. Magnums of sake and coolers of beer are a must. In keeping with the custom of never pouring one’s own sake, people take turns making the rounds of the revelers within their plastic territory, making sure that everyone’s paper cup is always full. The mood becomes festive very quickly and many groups are quite pleased to welcome both strangers and foreigners to their turf. If you stop to say hello and are invited to join, it’s important to remember that the plastic is the same as one’s home: everyone takes his or her shoes off before sitting down.
One of our favorite neighborhoods for both daytime and evening hanami is Hiroo with its wonderful Arisugawa Park. During the Edo period (1603-1868) the land was part of an urban villa used by the feudal lord Minonokami Nambu. It was later developed as a residence for members of the Imperial family. In the 20th century, Prince Nobuhito donated the land for public use. There are eleven varieties of cherry trees planted in the park.
We particularly like grabbing a bento from Sampiryouronzaderi, also known as The Deli, and heading to the park to sit on a bench to enjoy the sakura in dazzling sunlight. They offer several selections of exceptional bento lunchboxes during the day. Each has protein, vegetables, pickles and special rice. When feeling extra hungry we ask them to pack small containers of special “sides.” Their potato salada is something we’ve found ourselves waking up in the middle of the night and craving.
A great way to enjoy hanami at night in Arisugawa Park is with a picnic purchased at the local Meidiya supermarket directly across from the Hiroo subway exit. Starting in mid-March they have many sakura-themed sweets and sake for sale; we snag tubs of Japanese treats mixed with imported cheeses, sliced deli meats and a baguette and head for the park.
Sakura last for only a few short days making their beauty seem ephemeral and precious.
Another favorite place for evening hanami is Aoyama Cemetery. We’ve never been able to figure out why there are sakura in cemeteries, but we like to think it’s not only to cheer up the dearly departed but to encourage people to visit these sweet souls at least once a year. The sakura in this cemetery are particularly beautiful. At night it’s a raucous party. It’s the perfect place to put down some plastic and open a small bottle of sake. If you seem welcoming enough you’ll have new friends in no time.
A favorite hanami place amongst Tokyoites is at the Nakameguro Cherry Blossom Festival along the Meguro River, now unfortunately hemmed in by concrete walls, in the hipster neighborhood of Meguro. There are over 800 trees jam-packed into a very small space, and at night they are lit up in a spectacular display. Many restaurants along the river have viewing parties and meals served in spaces where one can see the lit up trees. It is a very short walk from Nakameguro Station – just follow the crowds. But remember, the trains stop running and almost everything here is over by 10 p.m.
If you’re a fan of street food, all hanami locations have street stalls selling some version of takoyaki, cotton candy, yakitori and sweets.