Cherry blossoms and panda bears
The week of April 3, 2011 was the start of the annual cherry blossom viewing festival. It’s not a holiday. Traditionally people go to the parks, spread out vinyl ground sheets and sit under the blossoming trees in the sunny and warm spring weather, eat snacks and get drunk. It is not always sunny and warm. About one year in twenty sees snow in Tokyo during cherry blossoms. It happened n 1988 and again in 2010.
People pretend that the blossoms are beautiful and that cherry blossom viewing represents some unique kind of Japanese esthetic - a mystical-spiritual appreciation for fleeting beauty. The reality, though, is that parks are so crowded that going to them is physically and psychologically unpleasant; there are so many people that you can’t even get a good look at the blossoms that you are supposedly there to see in the first place; drunkenness is obnoxious; and, the litter is phenomenal. People leave their beer cans, disposable chopsticks and cigarette buts everywhere, and the detritus of fallen petals is like the sand left on Canadian streets in spring after the snow thaws.
I have only been cherry blossom viewing once, in my first year in Japan, and I’ve never done it again because it’s so freaking unpleasant. This year the partying was lighter and more subdued because of the March 11th earthquake disaster. In Tokyo some of the borough governments erected signs in parks ‘announcing’ the cancellation of “hanami” cherry blossom viewing, or otherwise asking people to refrain from celebration out of respect for the suffering of disaster victims. That’s rich, since cherry blossom viewing parties are entirely voluntary to begin with, like a picnic, and not at all an official public event. I am glad to report that despite efforts by authority to control public behavior some people went ahead with their hanami, and others openly voiced objection to efforts by government to manage public feelings.
Tokyo’s Ueno Park is one of several popular cherry blossom venues. The famous Ueno Zoo - an old and cramped zoo, but famous as one of the few zoos in the wo rld to feature Chinese panda bears - has been without pandas for the last three years since the last panda died of old age. But in the last week of March a couple of new pandas on permanent loan from Chinawent on display. I’ve been to that zoo a few times and I’ve seen the pandas. But they were always asleep in the corner of their pen and looked only like a couple of pillows kicked into the corner of my bedroom. In other words, nothing at all to look at.