Sakura Ka-Boom

Sakura Ka-Boom

Another year, and already sakura season’s almost over, thank God.  So exhausting, all that relaxing under the cherry blossom trees, for real.

Sakura season isn’t just great.  It’s better than great, whatever that is, since everyone’s waited like six months for Japan to get warm again, and then once it does, Boom! it’s Hanami Party Explosion.  I guess I should say that hanami is a Japanese word that translates to “Sitting under blossoming trees on giant blue plastic sheets and drinking ridiculous amounts of sake while eating boxes of rice with little weiners shaped like octopuses.”  But maybe “hanami” sounds better, and anyway it’s shorter.

Japanese April Fool’s Joke

On a related note, have you noticed that everything in Japan starts on April first, like a giant April Fool’s joke the nation plays on its citizens?  Schools start, companies welcome their new employees, and contracts are renewed.  I finally figured out why.  See, if you had to face a year of working till midnight six days a week, and you got a contract in gray, freezing January, you’d say, Screw this, I’m moving to Thailand.  But in the springtime, when you see all those pink trees with their lovely cotton candy flowers, you think, Ahhh, Japan, how could I have ever doubted you?  I love you.  Now, where do I sign?  Then a week later it rains and all the flowers are gone, and you’re like, Aw, man, what’ve I done?  Probably drank way too much sake, is what.

So once the flowers start to bloom, everyone and their employee races to the park to stake out the best spots under the flowering trees.  And then the not-so-great spots next to the bushes.  And then some rocky-ass ledge overlooking a canal, because you got there late.  But you’ve only got a few days to get in your massive bacchanalia and then it’s back to work for a year, so you invite everyone you know—come to my hanami!

My Faulty DNA

My problem, as any doctor will tell you, is that I have no self control.  I just can not not go to every hanami party I’m invited to.  It’s genetic, so it’s not my fault.  Don’t hate on the handicapped, is what I’m saying.  So rather than lazily stumbling to the park in the sun with a couple cans of malt liquor and and falling asleep on the children’s swingset, I spend most of my hanami time hustling through train stations from one party to the next.  There’s a lot of flowers to see.  And if I don’t see them all, who will?  I’m responsible like that.

Walk like a Zombie in Japan

So I’m rushing from one hanami to another, and it’s hazardous, because Japanese people have an almost pathological lack of spacial awareness when they walk.  Every day is like National Sleepwalking Day.  So as I’m flying down the street on my bike to Ueno park, this dude decides to step off the curb right in front of me.  Not even a look before launching his body into the street.  Good thing I wasn’t drunk, because I swerved and just missed him.  I probably should have snatched his man-purse and kept going, but I didn’t because I’m responsible, as I said.  Plus it was brown and I was wearing mostly black, so it wouldn’t have matched.  Anyway, this happens all the time.  People are constantly making lefts, rights, and u-turns in the middle of crowds without once lifting their heads.  I understand if you’re texting on your iPhone, because hey, we all do that, but no smartphone equals no excuse, amigo.  So buy one already.  Anyway, two hanamis and several cocktails later, I found myself running down the stairs to catch the train right next to some random dude.

Running for the Train

Now, you’re not supposed to run for the train.  It’s not, you know, like civically responsible.  But let’s be real—the next train’s not for a whole minute and a half, and that’s time you could spend assed-out under some cherry blossoms, so of course you’re gonna run.  And me and this guy are racing side by side to make the train before the doors close, going down the steps two at a time, and he’s on the inside of the turn in front of me, so he jumps into the train first, and then—and this is so Japanese—just stops in the doorway, cold.  Like he’s instantly forgotten there’s a huge white guy running full-speed an inch behind him.

Once we picked ourselves up from the floor of the train car, this is what our conversation would have sounded like in English:

“Dude, why the hell’d you stop in the middle of the doorway?”

“I didn’t know you also wanted to get in the train!”

“What’d you think I was running for?”

“How should I know?”

But in Japanese, it sounded like, well, nothing, since we didn’t say a word or look at each other.  We just dusted ourselves off and pretended like nothing happened.  Japanese unspoken communication.  It’s easier, sometimes.

Goodnight Japan

Hanami Number Four

My next hanami was in Yoyogi Park with a bunch of people from an English school I used to teach at.  One of the dudes was dressed like a woman with a blue wig and voluptuous fake breasts.  Actually, he looked pretty hot.  We were in the middle of a long field and there was an enormous pile of garbage and at some point I looked up to see one of my female students squatting beside it and taking a whiz.  Ah, good times.

Hanami Number Five

This was a spontaneous hanami that happened as I was trying to walk through the crowds avoiding all the Japanese people making sudden turns in front of me.  A group of college kids spotted me and called me over to their blue plastic sheet.  Actually, it may have been green, but you get the idea.

“Hey, come drink!” a couple of guys shouted in English.

“Okay!” I said, and sat on the edge of their sheet.  I’m always up for new adventures of the liquid variety.

“Where are you from?” a girl asked, in English.

“Tokyo,” I replied, in Japanese.  It sounds a little different in Japanese, really.

“No, where were you born?” she asked again.

“America,” I confessed.

“Oooh,” Everyone cooed.  “America!”  They always say that.

“Here, this is Japanese rice wine,” said one of the guys, and poured me a paper cup.

“You mean, sake?” I said.

“Yes, rice wine,” he continued.  “And we say ‘kanpai!’”

“I see,” I said.  “How does one drink such a beverage?”

“Like this!” shouted another guy.  “Kanpai!” and downed an entire cup.

“Well, fair enough,” I said.  “Kanpai!” and followed suit.

This seemed to make everyone quite pleased.  We did it a few more times.

Hanami Number Six

Suddenly it was early evening and I was in this little park near Oji, walking with some girl.  The sun was setting.  I remember she seemed very pretty and young, and we were walking slowly.  I had a can of beer in one hand.  I thought about holding her hand with the other.  Since I had a free hand, you know.

“The trees are very beautiful,” I said.  This is how you tell a girl you are in love with her in Japan.  You talk about nature.

“Yes, they are.” she agreed.

“Spring is such a lovely season,” I continued, “with all the flowers blooming and the air getting warmer.  I wonder if it’ll be a full moon tonight?”  Talking about the moon is especially good.

“We should probably get back to the party now,” she said.

Hanami Number Seven

Now it was completely dark and cold, and I was drunk as hell in some crowded urban park on the west side of Ikebukuro station.  The lights were on under the trees and the flowers were all lit up pink.  There was an older woman beside me and she had nice large breasts and I was crying for some reason.  I had a tall can of Chu-hi in my hand, which should have made me happy.

“It’ll be okay,” she said, in Japanese, and handed me another tissue.

“But the sakura are all falling,” I sobbed.  “They’re all blowing away in the wind.  It’s so sad.”

“That’s what they do,” she said.

“But why does life have to be like this?  Why does it have to be so tragic and so beautiful?  Why does everything go away?

“It’ll be summer soon.  You like summer.

“Yes, I do like summer.  I really do.  God, look at the petals in the wind—just like snow floating up to heaven.

“Yes, there they go,” she said.  “It’s wonderful.”

And we sat there and she held my hand, the one without the Chu-hi, while the sakura scattered in the breeze.  And that’s how hanami season went down.

 



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38 Comments

  1. I just watched some “slice-of-life” anime that talked about the flower viewing for the cherry blossoms called Minami-ke Tadaima. It just finished the season of episodes and the last episode centered around the Hanami they had. It seems like many anime also end around the first of April. From the anime, it seems like a lot of young kids and families participate in this yearly event. Your descriptions sort of reminded me of the spring break ritual here in the U.S., but older people and families here don’t participate, just young people mainly. I’ve only seen Sakura trees in Washington D.C. in any numbers and the petals do look like snow when the wind blows, it’s quite beautiful. Glad to see that the Japanese don’t mind foreigners partaking in the Sakura viewing too?

    • Yeah, I’ve never seen a hanami where everybody wasn’t pleased as punch that a “foreigner” showed up. It’s pretty much a the-more-the-merrier kind of event. Not sure I’d liken it to spring break though, since you probably won’t see many bikinis or kegs of beer. So that’s unfortunate. It does seem pretty similar to the 4th of July, however.

      By the way, I’m now on episode 4 of “Tonbi,” so thanks for the link to that. It really is very good.

      • You might check out a new drama -“Made in Japan”:

        http://www.gooddrama.net/japanese-drama/made-in-japan

        It has only 4 episodes and its very interesting in that it turned around completely from what I thought it was going to be about in the beginning. I found it very thought provoking, and sort of disturbing and though it was a play on some real historical events; I hope that Japan doesn’t end up continuing the practices that the story implied they must do.

        The corporate politics and attitudes of the salarymen and executives involved seemed like something very unfamiliar to me (unprofessional or illogical) and it sort of made me wonder if Japanese businessmen were really men or children. I was suddenly remembering what you said before about the Japanese people and their child-like nature and it made a lot more sense after viewing this Drama.

        I frankly think it bodes bad for Japan and the US to continue to do business with China because I think their economy is going to implode in the next six months after hardline measures are instituted by the new pro-Maoist leader of China as he starts to implement his radical suppression of the freedoms that China has gained over the last decade.

        • Sounds interesting. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll add that to my summertime viewing list.

          • Off the Subject: I heard they’re setting up Patriot missile batteries in Tokyo preparing for a N. Korean launch of 3-4 missiles in the next 5 days. Anyone hear about that?

            • Well, I’ve certainly been following it closely, and the news that North Korea could possibly launch a nuclear weapon has raised my personal Threat Level from No Big Deal to Holy Crap. Let’s hope things settle down soon.

  2. Neat, I’ve read quite a bit about Hanami but it’s always interesting to read about it more I guess. I’m not one for picnics/outdoor events so I’d probably have to skip it. Do Hanami festivals/parties just take place on regular days? Or are they a public holiday? Also this is a but unrelated (Read: Completely) but have you ever been to an arcade in Japan? I know their arcade scene is still quite active as opposed to the arcade scene in the west which is deader than dead.

    • There aren’t any holidays specifically associated with hanami, which means that there’s about two weekends—four days—when the entire population of Japan will descend upon the same spots. It’s not so bad in the countryside, but in Tokyo, it’s challenging to find even a small patch of dirt to sit on. I guess that’s where sake helps.

      As for arcades, I’m thinking that’s what we call “Game Centers,” and yeah, there are tons of them. They have pretty much every kind of game you could think of—video games, win a Rirakuma mug by picking it up with a crane, do a snowboard ski jump—all that stuff. Most also have purikura photo booths, and some have fairly extensive sports activities, such as golf and baseball batting cages. They’re popular with high school and college kids, as well as people on dates.

      • Game Centers sound cool. I wouldn’t mind going to one when I go to Japan. I mean I’m a bit of a geek so I really like things like Gundam as well as Japanese culture. I guess when I get to live in Japan one day I’ll make a blog about those things haha. I wouldn’t be able to compete with yours though, you have a far superior ability to write funny stuff. Yes. Keep it up!

  3. Love your writing style. It truly is an explosion of activity come hanami time! Interestingly subtle shut-down in hanami #6…

    • Yeah, things don’t always work out the way you want. Sigh. You can’t win ’em all. Unleash the platitudes. Pretty sure that’s why we have karaoke, so you can sing about that stuff.

  4. Hanami season isn’t over here in Kansai yet.
    Where I live they just started now and I think we’ll see the peak very soon.

    I haven’t been to too many hanamis yet, because I prefer traveling during that season of the year.

    And although I wasn’t on a hanami yesterday, I had all these weird and typical conversations:
    Where are you from?
    No, I mean where did you live before that?
    No, I mean … where were you born?
    Oh, are you working as an English teacher?

    etc. … and repeat another 10 times. (T___T)/

    • Yeah, I’ve been getting more of those questions lately too. Wonder why? They pretty much follow the Japanese Rule of 7, that all Japanese people must, by law, adhere to. Maybe it’s the spring influx of new English teachers into the country . . .

      • Yeah, I know. Still very annoying, though.
        One of them apparently noticed that I was annoyed by his questions and said: “Sorry, I’m a weird Japanese.”
        And all I could think was: “No, you’re NOT! I wish you were! But sadly most Japanese are like that!”

        • A little education would go a long way on this issue. Japanese persons should be aware that treating people differently based upon appearance can be offensive. Sometimes they know but choose to do it anyway, and sometimes they’ve really never thought about it. In either case, they should understand that making assumptions based upon race isn’t a great way to start off a conversation.

          On the flip side, people coming from foreign countries could do a better job of trying to fit in. It wouldn’t hurt to have a bit more self-respect, instead of playing to cultural stereotypes just to get attention.

          • I think I try hard enough to fit in.
            They spot me immediately anyways. Right now – and at that time, too – I’m wearing a mask because of hay fever. I have the figure and same hair color as a Japanese person, but still I don’t seem to blend in. So annoying. ^^; ….

            I guess part of it has to do with me living in the boonies, though.

  5. Aww, Hanamis 6 and 7 are so cute.

    • Yes, science has proven that the cuteness of hanami increases relative to the lateness of the hour and the amount of mixed drinks one has consumed. Kind of like beer goggles for flowers.

  6. I love you, Ken.

  7. But wait, what happened with Hanami woman #7? Did she move in? Is she standing over you right now scolding you for not taking out the trash?

    • That made me laugh, because you know that’s exactly how things would end up if you let them go far enough. But no, I try to avoid that situation, including the “gradual move-in.” You know, that’s where the first time it’s a stray earring, then the next time a toothbrush in the bathroom, then some make-up, and suddenly you’re buying furniture together. Gotta watch out for that.

  8. Sometimes that sexy nature talk happens here too. Like, I was at the grocery store and this attractive young lady was scanning my groceries and she says “so how’s the weather out there?” Being a man who has been around the cul de sac several times, my spidey-sense told me that anything more than a bored “how are you?” from a grocery clerk means something is afoot. I made eye contact and smoothly responded “It’s very pretty.” She smiled and finished my transaction, then I silently swiped my credit card and took my receipt. I got in my car, buckled the seatbelt, and had a good cry at my cowardice. It really was pretty outside.

    • Yeah, that happened to me a few years ago in the U.S. too. The girl in front of me in line was like, “oh, you’re buying wine too.” And I was like “Uh, yes.” Then silence, and she was like, “Well, have a nice day.” And I was like, Yeah, thanks, guess I’ll go home and drink this wine by myself. I really need to establish some emergency procedures to cover situations like that.

  9. Beer goggles with hanami! Bet you wouldn’t need to wear them. Here, the flowers tried to live for a day, but barely made it.

    • Wow, that was quick. Hope you did an express hanami—like spread out a sheet, sit down, drink a beer, fall asleep for five minutes, then get up and go home. Boom, you’re done.

      • Er, thanks. Maybe it’s the season that inspires the urgency of the short and sweet, and yes, why hasn’t anyone written a manual for procedures for how to interpret supermarket conversations?

  10. This was a great post for me since I’ve never had a hanmai party in Okinawa, maybe its because we get them so early. We have our giant festival. I take pictures. People are probably doing stuff, but its February and we have tons of events. Fun to read about other parts of Japan!

  11. Just found your blog, your stories are great. I’m also an American living in Japan (Gunma). So this is the first time I’ve seen someone else mention the “pathological lack of spatial awareness when they walk”. What is up with that?!?!

    • Thanks for reading my stuff. I really appreciate it!

      Yeah, it’s a mystery why Japanese people—who are so detail-oriented in other situations—are completely oblivious when it comes to walking. They’ll just step in front of other people, cars, bicycles, anything, without a glance. I’m sure there’s a few contributing factors, but one reason that stands out for me is that nobody calls them on it. Do that in America and somebody’d honk, yell, or just plain shoot you. But here, you can go pretty far over the line before somebody says something. I guess that’s good. Or is it bad? I don’t even know any more.

  12. This is so true. I really wanted to understand it at first but now, I figure it’s just helping me develop my dexterity. I still get baffled by the folks that exit the trains and immediately freeze up looking for directions or at their phones. It’s not like anyone else is trying to get off the Yamanote line in Shinjuku.

    Having said that, I am now catching myself contributing to the problem by just stepping out in front of cars/bikes prior to looking both ways. Mom wouldn’t be so excited.

    • Word. I’ve caught myself doing the same thing, stepping off the curb without looking. What do they say—complacency killed the cat? Eh, something like that. And just yesterday I was walking home from the supermarket and a car passed so close that it clipped the plastic bag I was holding. Trying to avoid dying in Japan might be a good idea, I’m starting to think.

  13. Well, I’ve learned enough of Japan to not look any more when stepping into the road. 🙂 Taxis are spooky. But the drivers have an AMAZING sense of spatial awareness. I wonder what they’re like when walking.

    • Ah, see now there’s where you jumped to a conclusion, because there’s no scientific evidence that Japanese taxi drivers actually walk, other than to the toilet at the public park. The only footage that exists is grainy, and shows an apelike creature with a taxi-driver-like gait, likely going to the konbini for another pack of cigarettes.

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