TOKYO, May 7 — Eating, drinking and sharing jokes whilst surrounded by flowering cherry trees — their fragile blossoms in varying shades of white, pink and red — is an experience like none other. Come springtime every year, our Japanese friends will flock to parks and gardens for a hanami (flower viewing) picnic.
You may have encountered such picnickers, especially if you visit popular sakura (cherry blossom) spots.
You may even be tempted to join them but you are afraid to make a mistake and embarrass yourself. Don’t be put off though: picnicking like the locals isn’t difficult and the rewards far outweigh the preparation required.
First, ready all the necessary picnic items as you will be outdoors, after all. Useful accessories include a large picnic sheet, blankets to keep warm, paper plates, disposable chopsticks, wet wipes, paper cups and packable wine glasses.
While the most common picnic sheet is the blue-coloured plastic one, many picnickers enjoy quirkier versions with anime characters or anything kawaii (cute). For more comfort, bring a goza (straw) mat that is similar to tatami carpeting in traditional guesthouses.
For many, packing food and drinks is the most enjoyable part of a hanami picnic. The easiest way to fill up your picnic hamper is to head to a large departmental store such as Isetan Shinjuku and Nihonbashi Takashimaya. They usually have an entire food floor (depachika) in their basement where treats ranging from sweet, savoury and everything in between await to tempt you.
An easy option is to grab a hanami bento packed with all sorts of tasty foods such as sushi, tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette), katsusando (deep-fried pork cutlet sandwich), seasonal vegetables and seafood available only during spring, and even sakuramochi (pink-coloured glutinous rice cake wrapped in a salted cherry leaf).
The only problem? There are so many choices of bento boxes, you’d be hard-pressed choosing only one!
Springtime must-haves include mandarin oranges and strawberries. These fruits are juicier and more flavourful when in season. For a rare treat, try the Sakura Ichigo (literally translated as “Cherry Blossom Strawberry”) or white strawberry, available only from the Saga and Kumamoto prefectures.
Its light pinkish tone comes from restricted direct sunlight while maturing. Besides its pale hue, it has an intensely sweet fragrance — the scent of spring, perhaps?
As the weather can still be quite chilly, don’t forget a few bottles of hot green tea. In Japan, you can get these piping hot from konbini (convenience stores) and jido hanbaiki (vending machines).
Some hanami havens, such as Yoyogi Park, allow alcoholic beverages so bring your favourite bottles of wine or saké (Japanese rice wine). These will be sure to warm you up so get ready to toast a few rounds with a roaring “Kanpai!”
Next, pick a suitable hanami spot. The obvious suspects such as Shinjuku Gyoen and Ueno Park may be overly crowded due to their popularity with tourists and locals alike.
A hidden gem is Yoyogi Park: though there are still throngs of people, the park is huge and it’s not difficult to get a reasonably secluded spot. Try going early in the morning to reserve your spot as it’s first-come-first-served. Avoid reserving a bigger space than you will occupy though; that’s considered very rude.
Is there a right number of people to picnic with? Whether with you’re with family or with friends, having a romantic picnic for two or going solo — it’s all good. Picnic under trees, by a pond, away from the crowds — whatever works for you is the right way to go.
In fact, you can even abandon your picnic mat (provided there are others staying there) and just stroll around, taking in the sights, with or without a camera.
A hanami picnic isn’t only about the food, conversation and admiring the sublime sakura blooms. The Japanese are known to be quite reserved but this is one season where they can let loose.
You’ll see Tokyoites, both young and old, expressing themselves in the most creative ways — from juggling to twirling batons, from reading poetry aloud to “live” calligraphy performances. Even the simple act of blowing bubbles in the air brings the biggest smiles to the faces of everyone.
If you’re lucky, you might hear a few strands of a Japanese melody floating through the breeze. Don’t be surprised to see fellow picnickers breaking out in song, even when they’re not visibly inebriated.
It’s both a hanami tradition and a great way to showcase your vocal chords under the flowering sakura. Sing-a-longs are the most fun, so join in!
Dog lovers should check if they’re allowed to bring their furry friends along. While some hanami spots don’t allow pooches, many do. Make sure your doggy’s collar and leash is on all the time so they don’t disturb other picnickers in their natural exuberance.
Yoyogi Park has an enclosed dog run where your dog can go without a leash and play with other dogs.
Linger at your picnic long enough and soon you’ll have to answer the call of Nature. Some hanami spots such as Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen have public toilets; others do not.
In the case of the latter, a useful tip would be to visit a nearby konbini and ask politely to use their toilet. While it’s not a must to make a purchase, do show your appreciation by buying something small like a bottle of green tea or some chewing gum.
Last but not least: don’t forget to dispose of your garbage properly. While some hanami sites have rubbish bins (some with separate bins for recyclable materials), many do not.
So it’s a good idea to bring a garbage bag or two with you or get them from the park officers, if they provide them. Crows (karasu), abundant in the park, may be considered messengers of the gods in Japan but littering makes them reliant on scavenging garbage.
Treat this beautiful place where you’ve just spent such a wonderful time as though it’s your own home. The Japanese are such lovely hosts, both in public and in private, so it’s a pleasure to show our respect and be excellent guests too. You’re not only bringing your garbage away with you; you’re also leaving with the unforgettable memories of your hanami picnic too.
2-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan
Open 24 hours a day, all year round; admission free
Getting there: 1 min on foot to Harajuku gate from JR Harajuku Station, and 3 mins on foot to West gate from Tokyo Metro Yoyogi-koen Station