Hanami means "flower viewing" in Japanese. It gets its own special word because the blooming of the cherry blossoms here is a huge deal. Meteorologists visit the trees every day trying to predict when they'll bloom, signs go up around the city that say Sakura (cherry blossom in japanese) on them, and restaurants even have special Sakura cookies for sale.
People get into it.
The cherry blossoms don't last long, though. After a week they fall to the ground, which means that there is one big weekend for cherry blossom viewing.
The traditional thing to do is to stake out a spot at a public park by putting down a big tarp. You then bring food and drinks to the tarp and hang out with your friends all day and enjoy the cherry blossoms.
Todd and I headed out to Yoyogi park with our cameras. I took fantastic pictures of everything you would possibly want to see there, but then realized that I had no card in my camera so I don't actually have any pictures.
Near the entrance was a 5 on 5 basketball tournament which we watched for a little while. Across the walkway was a dirt soccer field with kids playing a game. A normal soccer game seems a lot more magical when there's a background of cherry blossom trees.
We wandered around through the park until we got to the main area with the rows and rows of cherry blossom trees and a big lake with three fountains in it. As expected the entire park was covered with people eating and drinking on tarps. Every cherry tree seemed to have someone taking pictures of the blossoms with their cell phone.
The trees themselves are beautiful. The bark is a dark greyish-brown which contrasts with the pale blossoms. Most of the trees have blossoms that are nearly white, but the occasional rebel tree has darker pink blossoms. What can't be seen well in pictures or even video are the blossoms that fall. They randomly fall off the tree and flutter slowly down to the ground, looking like an exaggerated snowflake falling to the ground.
I think that there are cherry blossom trees in Washington state, but I had never seen them before. Todd and I spent a good amount of time eating roasted corn with soy sauce and just staring at the trees and the spectacle surrounding them.
Eventually we met up with our friend Toby who was meeting a bunch of friends at the park. In traditional Japanese fashion we joined him, taking our shoes off before sitting on the tarp, and eating strange Japanese foods like sesame seaweed crackers and mochi balls.
It was cold but everyone had jackets and scarves and was willing to put up with the cool weather to sit under the cherry blossoms. Eventually a hilarious drunk friend of Toby's made friends with the group of girls next to us and we merged our tarps. They had better food than us too including freshly steamed vegetables.
What a great holiday, I kept thinking. There are no meaningless traditions or obligations. Everyone just goes out and enjoys the beauty of nature together. Just conversations with friends and strangers with the occasional cherry blossom falling into your lap.
Some people were more active though. In the less cherry-blossom laden areas people played badminton with no net, flew kites, and kicked soccer balls around. One guy stood very still until he was angered by Todd trying to film him. Another group practiced Tai Chi.
As it began to drizzle and we stood up to leave a group of three people stopped near our tarp. They were all dressed identically. Knee high white leather boots, white hot shorts, a white mock military jacket, and a white fuzzy hat. Two of them were slim girls, the other was a guy with a Confucius beard. They all had shaved legs.
They put down a boom box and propped a sign that said something like "Bercume" up against a tree. From a canvas bag they retrieved three silly looking plastic microphones and pressed play.
Their faces went serious and they stood facing us in a triangle formation. No introduction. The music starts playing.
For the next ten minutes or so they lip sync and dance to hilarious J-pop music. Even the guy lip syncs his solos, which are sung by a girl with an impossibly high pitched voice. The crowd gathered around them laughs but stops when they see that he keeps his straight face. This is his art.
At one point four Harajuku kids, dressed up in home made black and magenta clothes that make them look like fantasy characters, stop by to watch the dancers. I feel like I'm in some sort of cartoon. A dragon could have walked by and I wouldn't have been all that surprised.
After three songs the dancers pack up their things and leave. They don't ask for money and they don't make any explanation for their performance.
We leave too, walking with the masses of people escaping the rain. At first we're in a hurry to get to the train station, but then we see something that makes standing in the rain worth it.
We approach a group of Japanese men dressed head to toe in leather as if they're from the fifties. Their hair is done in pompadour styles of varying heights. You will think I'm exaggerating, but one man's hair was literally 14 inches off the top of his head.
A generator was powering a PA system which was blaring 50s rockabilly rock. The men stood in a circle twisting and dancing while a few girls in poofy skirts danced on the outside. Occasionally one of the men would jump into the middle, leather pants sliding on the wet pavement, and begin spinning his feet as if he was a break dancer.
My jaw was dropped for at least five minutes. What a bizarre spectacle.
One of the men took his shirt off. On his back was a huge elaborate tattoo. A guy next to me confirmed my suspcion.
"These are Yakuza. They're the only ones who have big tattoos."
Yep. We were watching the most brutal gang in Japan, the equivalent of the Mafia in Italy, dressed in 50s rockabilly costumes, dancing their hearts out.
Next to us a guy set up a big camera with a tripod. Two of the yakuza rushed him and pointed the camera away. No video. Todd kept filming and they somehow didn't notice or realize that he had a good camera.
This was fortunate because just a few minutes later a small fight broke out when someone punched one of the Yakuza in the face.
After the fight broke up we walked to the train station and went to Pure Cafe, where ate a macrobiotic lunch plate, green soup, and whole wheat pancakes with tofu cream, bananas, and maple syrup.