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Tokyo’s Cherry Blossom Festival

I’m going to a graveyard in Tokyo to see the flowers. Yes, that does sound completely weird. Fortunately, I have a perfectly good explanation. You see, I’m going for the cherry blossom viewing. 
The cherry blossom, or sakura, is Japan’s most popular icon and deeply embedded in the national psyche. Throughout the centuries, odes have been written about its beauty and symbolism and even today, its pretty pastel petals are plastered on everything from tissue paper to cartoon characters.


Every year at the beginning of spring, as the first snow white blossoms burst into flower on the cherry trees, thousands of people crowd into parks and other green places around Japan to admire the ephemeral beauty of the this most Japanese of flowers. The ohanami (cherry blossom viewing), or the cherry blossom festival as it’s sometimes known, is the first major event of the year, and it’s a cherished and thoroughly respectable Japanese tradition. It’s just that I happen to like going to see the cherry blossoms in a cemetery.

More specifically, the Aoyama Cemetery. There are, of course, literally dozens of other places to have cherry blossom viewings in Tokyo. Ueno Park is a perennial favourite, Shinjuku Park has thousands of the flowering trees to view, Sumida Park even has a very pretty river for a more picturesque scene. Thousands of other people will choose to have their cherry viewing parties in these places. Personally, I’d choose Aoyama Cemetery because for obvious reasons, it’s a bit less crowded there. Also, it’s free to enter.


Aoyama Cemetery is classically Japanese in design, a tidy arrangement of grey headstones standing over tiny plots (due to space constraints, only the ashes of the cremated remains are buried), all packed tightly away in one of the most fashionable districts of the city. The cemetery has been here since 1872, long before Tokyo was the overcrowded hip metropolis it is now. Normally, it’s a very quiet place. If it wasn’t for the 200-odd cherry trees planted along the main road through the cemetery, it would still be a quiet place during April as well.


Exactly when the cherry trees burst into bloom really depends on their location and the weather, as the milder the climate, the earlier the blooming. If I’d been in subtropical Okinawa, I’d be able to enjoy a cherry blossom viewing in January, while further north in Hokkaido, I’d have to wait til May. Around Tokyo, blooms come out anywhere from end March to beginning May. The timing of the first blossoms is eagerly predicted by the Meteorological Agency, reported by the press and avidly devoured by the sakura-hungry public.

So when the sakura trees finally burst into bloom, there I’ll be, with my blue groundsheet and takeaway yakitori, camped out under the trees and enjoying the sight of great clouds of white gracing the trees along the road and occasionally drifting to the ground. Cherry blossoms only last about a week or two after opening and the ephemeral nature of the blooms may even inspire me to contemplate the fragile mortality of human life, surrounded as I will be by the spirits of lives past.

Then again, maybe not. In true Japanese salaryman tradition, many of the other cherry blossom viewing parties around me will be busy drinking copious amounts. The mobile stalls selling noodles, yakitori and squidballs will be doing a brisk business and as the night wears on, some of those jokes getting tossed about will get incredibly bawdy. I doubt sakura blossoms will feature in any of them. Still, I won’t complain. I read on Wikipedia that the Japanese flower viewing tradition was something the Japanese adapted from ancient Chinese customs, when the entire Imperial households (royals, poets, sycophants, concubines and all) would sit under the blooming plum trees and party – so maybe the drunken revelry of today’s sakura viewings in Tokyo are just the modern continuation of a very old practice!

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