Editor’s note: The following is an updated version of the last blog post. This new version will be published as a column in the Tampa Bay Current. If you want to skip past all of the words, brand new photos from Shinjuku Park, along with snappy captions, are at the bottom of the page.
The song of spring is the death knell of winter, and so it is in Japan as in other moderate climates of the world.
Winter in Tokyo wasn’t terrible, with temperatures hovering around the 40s. There were exactly two snow storms that threw the entire city into a tizzy, but everything melted within a few days. Otherwise there was a steady drizzle for three months straight with few days of sunshine.
Then, of course, there was the day the smog blew over from China and the entire downtown area of Tokyo was blanketed in a yellow haze.
With the beginning of March, the skies finally started to clear up and the thermometer started to dabble in the 50s. Before we could get to the glory of spring, first we had to endure allergy season.
Allergy season in Tokyo is horrendous.
I won’t describe my own symptoms, because that will end everything for everyone before we even get started. But for two days, it was bad.
For a week straight, I cut out alcohol and ate nothing but raw cabbage, bananas and sushi. I was sure to bathe every night, and use prescription eye drops and nasal spray before going to bed. I also wore one of those white surgical-like masks whenever I stepped out of the house.
Those things are as uncomfortable as all get out. Between the mask, my glasses and listening to music through earbuds, I texted Lisa one day to tell her that there were way too many things hanging off of my ears.
Anyhow, after a few days my body was right as rain.
For others, however, hay fever season ran for over a week. Miserable men and women stumbled throughout Tokyo – puffy eyes, runny noses, white masks encapsulating half of their face.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this in Tokyo. The story of allergy season is directly linked to government ineptitude, which is always a fun story to tell.
After World War II, the Japanese government decided the oaks and maples and other trees did not pull their weight, economically speaking. So in true bureaucratic insipidity, the government razed all of the native trees and planted Japanese cedar trees, which were deemed to hold more value. The wood and seeds were more utilitarian.
Unfortunately, everybody, and I mean everybody, was allergic as hell to the cedar pollen.
You could almost compare it to germ warfare, only its your own moronic government dosing you with insidious allergens.
Once the pollen haze cleared, however, it was time for hanami season. “Hanami” literally means to “look at flowers.”
In particular, the latter half of March and the beginning of April is when the sakura, or cherry blossoms, are in full bloom. This year they came about a week early. March 20, the official first day of spring, also happened to be the first day the cherry blossoms were in bloom.
Not only that, but March 20 was a national holiday. It is Vernal Equinox Day in Japan, and everybody had the day off from work (including Lisa). It is a day meant for ”the admiration of nature and the love of living things.”
That’s what Lisa and I intended to do. We were going to go to Shinjuku Gyoen (park) which is known for its sakura viewing. However, it closes at 4 p.m. For most people, this isn’t an issue. But for Lisa and I, on our vacation days, we don’t get out of bed before 1 p.m.
The first day of hanami season was such a day. Still, we had three hours to make it, right? Wrong.
We made pancakes. We did laundry. We did dishes. We (I) screwed around on the internet. Stuff takes time.
By the time we left the house, it was 4 p.m. Too late to get to Shinjuku Gyoen.
Instead, we went to Rikugien Gardens. This was a very pleasant surprise. The garden stayed open until 9 p.m. and they illuminated their weeping cherry blossoms with floodlights. Because the cherry blossoms were blooming early, they opened the display two days earlier than they originally expected.
The exposition was breathtaking. (For photos of Rikugien, check out the last post)
Then the following Saturday Lisa and I took part in a more traditional hanami commemoration. We sat under a cherry tree in the park across the street and drank a beer.
The two most popular spots to look at cherry blossoms are the aforementioned Shinjuku Park and Ueno Park, with Ueno Park being the Disney World of cherry blossoms.
Now, I did not witness it first hand, but apparently the park (which is the size of a small town) is packed elbow-to-elbow with revelers. Drunk revelers who aren’t necessarily there to look at cherry blossoms, but really to hang out and be seen. Kind of like a Phillies baseball game.
Shinjuku Park, on the other hand, is a bit more subdued. Alcohol is not allowed. In fact, security guards check bags at the gate (also like a Phillies baseball game). There is also a 200 yen (roughly $2) fee in order to keep out the homeless and other riff-raff.
Of course, the entire city of Tokyo is littered with cherry trees, and in fact, every city ward has its own park with sakura. The park across the street from our apartment just happens to have a very nice trail lined with cherry trees. That’s where Lisa and I set out our lawn chairs and tipped back a few while taking in the scenery.
It’s a nice way to enjoy life.
Finally, this past Tuesday, while everybody else was supposed to be working, I trolled my way over to Shinjuku Park. It was quite lovely, but it was still quite crowded, even for a weekday. If they had allowed alcohol, it probably would have been more fun.
Now that all that reading nonsense is over with…
…let’s look at some pretty pictures.