By Mark Ellis

There is an old saying which goes, when in Rome do as the Romans do.  Well, that saying can be applied to anywhere.  So, when in Japan do as the Japanese do and celebrate the arrival of spring with a hanami party.  Hanami, or flower viewing, is the traditional custom of sitting under a cherry tree and enjoying the soft elegant beauty of cherry blossoms.  The practice itself is said to have started during the Nara period sometime between 710 and 794 when people would marvel at the beauty of plum blossoms.  For whatever, during the Heian period, from 794 to 1185, public interest shifted from plum flowers to cherry blossoms.  It was Emperor Saga who first came up with the idea of having a feast and getting drunk under the cherry tree.  Since then, the tradition has lived on to this day.
A typical hanami party consists of gathering a group of family and friends, bringing food and alcohol, and having a picnic in the park underneath the falling blossoms. The practice is so widely spread that when the flowers are in maximum bloom it can be difficult to find an open patch of land to lay your blanket.  So if you decide to indulge in the simple joy of picnicking under the warm cascade of petals it’s a good idea to go prepared.  Here are a few tips that can help.
1. Stake out a good location.The most popular places to have a hanami party are Ueno Park, which has 1000 cherry trees, Shinjuku Gyoen, which is one of Tokyo’s largest parks, and Yoyogi Koen in Harajuku.  Other popular hanami spots are Chidorigafuchi in Kudanshita, Sumida Park in Asakusa, Inokashira Park in Kichijouji, and Aoyama Cemetery in Nogizaka.  All of these places, even the cemetery, will be packed to the gills.  If you like squeezing in with a billion other people then your hanami this year will surely be a spectacle. If, however, you prefer a quiet and more intimate environment then it might be a good idea to check out cherry blossoms in some of the less traveled neighborhoods.  Cherry trees are everywhere around the city so just after they start to bloom take an afternoon to look for places that are more residential or off the main roads.
2. Get there early, I mean really early.  Getting a good spot under the perfect tree is a lot like getting good seats at a concert.  It requires that you go early and stake your claim to the spot you want before someone else comes along to claim it.  It’s hard to say how early is early enough but I guarantee you that if you show up at 6 am there will already be few squatters in the park with their blankets and thermoses of hot tea.
3.  This one is directly related to number 1 and 2.  Try to find a spot that has easy access to a public restroom.  After all the beer and soda you will be so happy you did.
4.  Bring plenty of food and drinks.  I know this one goes without saying but you’d be surprised how quickly supplies run out during a daylong picnic.  Once they do, you will have to step over countless blankets and bags of chip just to get to the edge of the vast picnic area so you can sprint to the convenient store for more beer.
5.  Bring garbage bags.  It is very important that you clean up after yourself when the party is over.  People who come to Tokyo marvel at how clean the city is.  Well, it doesn’t get that way by magic.  Everyone does their part to help keep it clean by picking up after themselves.  Make sure that you bring enough garbage bags to separate the burnable trash from the non-burnable as well as bottles and cans from all the rest.  There is a trash deposit area in the major hanami spots.  It’s a good idea to locate those before the park gets too crowded.  If you are in a not so popular park then be sure to take your trash with you when you leave.
6.  Bring a jacket.  Spring weather is unpredictable.  It might be nice and warm on the day of your hanami or it might be super chilly.  It’s best to be prepared by bringing a warm jacket or sweater.
Hanami parties are a great way to enjoy spring and participate in one of Japan’s oldest and most beloved tradition.  Have fun.
Photo by Marcellus Nealy