It’s that time of year when the Japanese turn their thoughts to what I call the 3-S’s: sakura (桜, cherry blossoms), sakamori (酒盛り, drinking parties) and shuran (酒乱, getting raucously drunk).
Fifty weeks out of the year we’re our dull, proper, work-addicted selves, but for two weeks in spring, under the cherry blossoms, we turn into feisty, pleasure-seeking bacchanalian animals. Get with it. A girlfriend of mine actually got pregnant during this season, with a colleague who sat four seats away from her at the hanami (花見, cherry-blossom-viewing party) in Inokashira Park (by far the most happening sakura spot in Tokyo). When dawn rolled around, seating arrangements had altered dramatically, my friend had lost several articles of clothing and a vague proposal of marriage had been made over an isshobin (一升瓶, a 1.8-liter bottle of sake). To this day she still can’t recall any details of that night, but the couple is now happily ensconced in a home in Saitama with two lovely children.
That’s a sakura success story, but take it from me, it’s a rare occurrence. In fact, not a few Japanese profess to hate the season of hanami and shudder at the thought of pink flowery clusters suddenly appearing on tree boughs. “Sakuratte kowai!” (「桜って怖い」”cherry blossoms are scary”) says my artist friend Kyoko, who would rather spend the season someplace overseas where the blossoms can’t get at her sensitive nerves. News of the sakura zensen (桜前線, cherry blossom front) gradually shifting from Okinawa to the Kanto area depresses her deeply, and her facial expression at this time resembles Sadako from the film “Ringu (リング, The Ring).”
Postwar novelist/philosopher Ango Sakaguchi once claimed sakura annoyed the hell out of him. Novelist Motojiro Kajii wrote that sakura trees were beautiful because they had corpses buried under their roots. On a less drastic note, Mari Mori (eldest daughter of Meiji Era novelist and elite bureaucrat Ogai Mori), said “Hito ga ōkute hokorikusai hanami wa daikirai” (「人が多くてほこりくさい花見は大嫌い」”I hate cherry blossom parties where the crowd kicks up dust”) and wrote that the scene reminded her of hanami parties in the late Edo Period, when people often picnicked under cherry trees in full view of execution sites to observe the pink petals flutter onto decapitated bodies.
Twelfth-century poet Saigyo associated sakura with rigorous self-discipline and male dominance, and to this day sakura is considered by many to be otokorashii (男らしい, manly) for the way they blossom in hordes, and chiriyuku (散り行く, die out or fade away) in droves, abruptly and without lingering. Hanamichi (花道, the sakura path) refers to the the walkway where rikishi (力士, sumo players) and other kakutōka (格闘家, martial artists) stride before getting onto the ring, but it can also mean the final miseba (見せ場, stage) of a samurai before the seppuku ritual. It’s no wonder male ikebana artists favor sakura branches in their work, while many women tend to go for momo no eda (桃の枝, peach blossom branches). A symbolic gender difference.
In many ways, sakura is a ritomasu shikenshi (リトマス試験紙, litmus test) for the Japanese soul. Those that have no trouble with hanami or sakura tend to have little trouble conforming to Japanese society or going with the minna isshoni (みんな一緒に all together now) mentality. And then there are those of us who turn pale at the thought of an organized hanami party or get violent when asked to be the hanami no bashotori (花見の場所取り, the hanami stake-out person, which involves choosing a suitable hanami spot, marking it with a blue plastic sheet and sitting on it for eight hours or so until the rest of one’s party arrives). For a Japanese person to make it through the hanami season, a genuine love of cherry blossoms and a penchant for drinking beer nonstop out of flimsy plastic cups is mandatory.
Once in awhile, you come across a classy hanami gathering. This is usually a small group, dressed elegantly in warm clothing (first rule of hanami: always, always prepare for sudden temperature drops). They usually have bottles of wine, or quality sake warmed in thermoses. Not a hint of plastic anywhere, and everyone brings a mai-hashi (マイ箸, my hashi, or your own personal chopsticks). The food is simple and homemade, carried to the site in jyūbako (重箱, lacquered boxes) wrapped tidily in a furoshiki (風呂敷, traditional cloth wrappers). Strains of jazz come out of someone’s iPhone. They’re usually quick to call it a day, and tesshū (撤収, clean-up operation) with a minimum of fuss and almost zero trash, later retiring to a cozier indoor venue for further intoxication. What with record-high levels of kafun (花粉, pollen) and gusts of taikiosen (大気汚染, pollution) blowing in from China, this year’s hanami promises to be a bummer anyway. Kyoko must feel a little relieved.