So I did, while he took pictures, and everyone cheered.
You could say it is a tawdry touch of the Jersey Shore or Bourbon Street I found on a Wednesday evening in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, on my search throughout Japan for differences between our cherry blossom seasons. The rows upon rows of picnics under the blossoms — long, low banquet tables fashioned from cardboard boxes, groaning with round platters of takeout sushi and bottles and bottles of sake and beer — are surely different from the scene in Washington. There are tables of salarymen in ties. Salarywomen in dark suits, their high heels lined up in a row, their plastic cups soundlessly tapping in long, laughing toasts. Families meeting in the park, old friends reuniting, lovers sharing a single, small box as a table.
The paths are packed with these late-night parties as the blossoms glow in lantern lights.
It is more than that.
Sockman and his friends were among the millions of giddy people in Japan who revel in every moment they can beneath the blossoms.
Walks in the morning, strolls at lunchtime, picnics late into the night, every hour, every day, every moment those little petals cling to the branches.
Even as the petals start falling and the air looks like a kawaii Hello Kitty snowstorm, they stay for the closing acts of the show.
Cherry blossoms in Japan do not look different from those in the United States.
Sure, the sheer volume of Japan’s blossoms exploding across the country dwarfs the small, beloved displays surrounding Washington’s Tidal Basin and in neighborhood parks.
The Tidal Basin’s trees were a gift from the mayor of Tokyo in 1912, and the National Park Service has tended to them passionately and perfectly.
There is no finer scene than the arching branch, laden with blushing, pink puffs, reaching for the waters of the Tidal Basin, with the Jefferson Memorial stately in the background.
We have got the aesthetics right, my blossom-loving friends.
I showed my Tidal Basin photos to plenty of Japanese folks, and they heartily approved of the tight, perfectly balanced Western iteration of the sakura harmony. But it is the people, the reaction, the impact and spell these blossoms have on folks that we seem to struggle with replicating.
In D.C., cherry blossom viewing mostly feels like a to-do item. We look at the blossoms, join a carousel of people circling the Tidal Basin and take the photos. Check. Done. Maybe we will return when Uncle Al is in town and wants to go see them.
In Japan, the viewing of the blossoms is a genuine pastime, a sport. It is Mardi Gras. It even has a name — hanami. The entire country indulges in a week-long, blossomy bacchanal.
In Kyoto, there is a vibrant promenade of kimono-wearing women — tweens with mobile phones tucked into their obi to grandmas in antique, hand-painted kimonos — who tiny-step from tree to blossoming tree, posing, smiling, taking selfies. It feels like a prom or wedding every day of hanami.
From Osaka to Nagano, there were people outside, taking a bazillion pictures of the blossoms and themselves with the blossoms. Foods from rice balls to octopus tentacles to sauce-glazed sparrows are served on sticks in hanami festivals. Carnival games are played. Everything in shops is decorated pink.
In a community park in suburban Tokyo, dozens of families day-camped under the trees. It is the same setup as a beach day — tents, folding chairs, blankets, toys, balls, lunches, snacks, drinks. They stay until dusk, and the kids do not want to go home.
On a former military golf course in Yokohama, rolling hills of blossoms set the scene for day-long family fests.
Picnics, pickup baseball games, dog walks. Neighbors greet each other with the equivalent of “Happy Hanami.”
It is not like D.C. has not tried to throw a real blossom party. Back when I was still a reporter, I covered the cherry blossoms one year. I wrote about the Park Service’s crackdown on Asian American families — largely recent immigrants — who tried to have those long, sake-soaked picnics beneath the blossoms. Sorry, no alcohol allowed on Park Service property.
I also did a story about the small number of people who come out to see the blossoms after sundown. Night blossoms are a huge part of hanami. Japanese parks and landmarks set up evening programs, where the blossoms are bathed in spotlights or serve as a canvas for colorful lightshows synchronized to music.
In D.C.? I went at night and found a few federal workers who did not have time to come in the daylight. Or lovers having a secret tryst. But full-blown, night hanami? Lights? Picnics? Packed walks on a Wednesday night?
Nope. We do try. There is the big parade, the Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival, the crowds. It is more festive than a usual day in D.C., sure. But come on, folks, we can do better.
The core magic of the sakura is the fleeting, ephemeral quality of their peak. It is not something that can be scheduled, perfectly predicted, curated, custom-ordered, Ubered or human-controlled. It happens when the trees are ready.
Then as quickly as they arrive, the blossoms are gone.
I do believe we get that in D.C. What we are missing, in our region of overachievers, overschedulers and type-A control freaks is the ability to utterly turn ourselves over to the unscheduled serendipity of blossoms. To experience their beauty, their short-lived peak with total abandon, with joy.
Let it go, D.C. Go the to Tidal Basin on a weeknight. Bring a blanket and stay too late. Break plans, miss deadlines.
Take your shoes off and walk around in sock feet. Greet strangers. Do not just see the blossoms. Hanami.
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