Perhaps it seems odd to construct a ‘how to’ guide for hanami. The pursuit is, after all, the very essence of a simple pleasure; looking at flowers. Literally. What guidance could be needed for sitting under a tree and taking in flowers in bloom?
Maybe ‘hanami etiquette guide’ would be a better fit, or simply a set of warnings to the hanami novice about that experience upon which they are about to partake (if they haven’t already).
All of this comes to us after a spring Sunday in Tokyo’s Inokashira Park (井之頭公園), prime hanami territory. So prime in fact, that even in the absence of flowers to gawp, throngs of people were still to be found doing hanami. Herein is probably warning No.1; in a country so famed for its timekeeping, and so diligent in its attempts to forecast the bloom, the petals pay all of this scant regard. Expect them to be late. Or early, or to not show up at all, at least in some sections of whatever park you visit.
Mark your territory ...
… and do it early. In fact, one can never be early enough. If prime trees at the prime spots could be booked, they would be years in advance. The organizer of our Inokashira shindig was sharing pictures of our hanami spot at 4:30 am, and even at this eye-watering hour the surrounding trees were conspicuously bare of blossom.
There are two points here; one is that you should never underestimate how crowded a prime hanami spot can get. Think something along the lines of the last ever Rolling Stones concert, only a bit more polite. The other is directed particularly toward the hapless foreigner who underestimated how crowded these things can be; Don’t sit on an empty tarpaulin, however tempting. This expat has done it before and it’s awkward when the owners turn up. Plus you can never get relaxed anyway.
(Not a bad spot at all.)
On a side note, one can garner a kind of morbid pleasure from watching the unfortunate company worker who was assigned ‘tarpaulin watch’, guarding the territory throughout the day until the work hanami do kicks off. It might sound like they’re getting an easy day at work, but this looks to be a task of psychotically boring proportions.
The weather in March and April is as confused as an under pressure cherry blossom forecaster. Your hanami do could well be nice and warm. It could also be on the back of a day that was wet and miserable. A single layer of tarpaulin might not be enough to guard against the soggy stuff so layer up! At Inokashira, even sheets of newspaper topped with double tarpaulin left our rears at risk. Not to mention the cleaning job afterwards. (The tarpaulin just went in the bin.)
It’s by turns hilarious and distressing that something so focused on enjoying nature is so emphatically bad for it. That being said, we can all do our bit to tidy up after ourselves. Prime hanami spots in Japan will all be facilitated with massive bins for garbage, and just like at home, things need to be separated. It’s not an ideal situation, but such is the desperation to be near blooming flowers, groups will accept a patch of land next to piles of stinking garbage.
Train station chaos
While they don’t the reach the epic proportions of post-firework displays in summer, train stations near to hanami spots are sometimes forced to groan under the weight of people toing and froing from parties. The point here is that we have a propensity to follow the crowds when it isn’t necessary. There are probably other routes that can be taken to the flowers which the true connoisseur of doing hanami like a local will follow. The other warning to heed is that food outlets between train station and park can be equally crowded and, depending on the time, short on supply. One is faced with a choice between buying food and drink well in advance but having to lug it all to the party, or travelling light and running the risk of long lines and limited choice.
(Those trees that are in bloom command the attention, and the lenses.)
Speaking of long lines, expect them here. We’re not quite sure what’s to be done about this. Park toilets just aren’t built to this kind of capacity, and thus far we’ve yet to see a hanami spot furnished with portable loos. The consumption of alcohol only serves to exacerbate things, and squatting down behind a tree, no matter how discreet, seems far from the norm.
Come prepared for charades
Charades can be awkward even in the living room at Christmas. Transplant this to the middle of a hanami crowd and the more introverted among us could quickly be faced with a party spoiler. Actually, Inokashira was first for us to see charades being played at hanami. It turns out that alcohol can help, and if this isn’t enough, perhaps we can find comfort in the pleasure that we’re giving to the groups seated around us. The wider point here is that hanami is very much a shared situation. The guitar player entertains not only their immediate group, but also those around them. People are forced to tiptoe between sheets of tarpaulin. Neighboring groups will request a photo. Balls, Frisbees, shoes, smoke, plastic pages and the odd stray child are all likely trespassers into your territory. This is what it is, hanami at the marquee spots. Embrace it and good times await.
In this regard, in order to do hanami like a local, maybe the simplest things to say, is just, Go and do it!. The very act of scratching out your own hanami spot in Japan to pitch up alongside everyone else is to become a local for a few hours during this most local and thus most Japanese of pursuits.
Some Japan's most famous of cherry blossom spots are about to reach their peak, with others to follow as the blossom move north. Perfect time then to share your own last-minute tips on how to hanami like a local.
For a list of the most popular hanami spots across Japan (including those that are still to bloom) ...
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