Japanese culture has always retained an air of mystery and confusion for
the non-Japanese. Even in recent decades the country has maintained one foot
in old traditions the other in a modern world. The duality of Japan is explicit in
the hanami, the cherry blossom festival…..

        â€¦..Taro and I met under the statue of Saiko Takamori walking his dog.
(Eventually the famous samurai disemboweled himself over a matter of honor.
The fate of the dog remains unknown.) Taro argued that Takamori’s life was
a parody of beauty and frailty, not unlike the aesthetic values of hanami, the
festival he had brought me to share in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. Like many of his
young compatriots Taro see-saws between the old and the new ways, between
kendo and disco, sushi and pasta, the teahouse and the espresso bar, giggly
girls and emancipated women, the kimono and the mini-skirt.

             Hanami is his annual purification.

            â€œThis is the old Japan,â€� he explained. “This is what every
gaijin (foreigner) likes to see.�

              At the time we were being swept along in a tidal wave of cherry
blossom pilgrims. Their pilgrimage to the trees begins with the first blossoms and
ends when the last petal has dropped from the last tree. Around us the park was
awash in picnic parties, all camped on blue tarps taped to the bitumen paths.
Junior employees stake out the best spots before dawn and label the tarps with
the company’s name. Around 1.5 million people come to Ueno Park for the
festival. Millions visit parks all over Japan as the blossom period migrates up the
islands from the warm south in late March to the cold north in May.

            The bacchanalian pastoral pursuit is a legacy from the days when
Japanese peasants believed the appearance of sakura -cherry blossoms-
signaled the arrival of the god who ensured rich harvests. But credos change
and adapt. Today hanami is an excuse for a good party, a spring carnival after
winter, a chance to let one’s hair down in public, ostensibly venerating the
old while embracing the new.

           The hanami revelers are sprawled between sushi, sake and yakitori
(skewered chicken), some tipsy, some in full song, the more poetic, on their
backs, gazing rapturously into the dome of blossoms above. Some compose
sonnets dedicated to the purity of the delicate petals and the translucent glow of
the sake in their cups.
          Click, click went the cameras. “Kampai!â€� went the toasts.

          On the fringe of the hanami parties the unwashed homeless - who live in
the bowels of the park under blue tarp sheets held down with umbrella shafts
and rocks - had their heads buried deep in the garbage disposal sacks,
scavenging for leftovers.

         â€œIt’s the best time of the year. More food than we can eat,â€� said
a middle-aged man with the soot of weeks on his face. He had moved into the
park three years earlier after he lost his job as a car assembly worker. He said
he did not wish to be a burden on his family. He was polite and erudite.

         A group of Christian crusaders in white gowns, a Red Cross emblazoned
on the chest, offered salvation to these scavengers in the next life - and a decent
meal from their soup kitchen in the meantime. In the Japan of plenty the
homeless are considered an eyesore, an embarrassment to prosperity and
propriety. At the turn of the 21st century every Tokyo suburb turned down
government plans to build homes for the wandering vagabonds whose numbers
have grown in ratio to Japan’s economic woes. By 2,000 thousands lived
under blue tarps in Ueno Park, tugged into nooks, existing on charity and the
collection of cans and cartons sold for recycling. Everyone pretended the ragged
ones were not there, especially when the cherry buds burst.

         Some of the falling petals always drift into the sake cups.

         Taro wore a pinstriped suit and demure blue tie, ready for his companyâ
€™s annual picnic under one of Ueno Park’s 1,100 cherry trees.  Japan Inc.
goes to company picnics properly attired in a country where Hisayoshi Toda, 44,
a municipal counselor in Osaka, faced disciplinary action for refusing to wear a
tie in the Council chamber. Toda also liked to carry a paper bag instead of a
briefcase, another violation of décor.

         The cherry blossom picnics are also held at night, after work. Company
members are seated in hierarchical order under the cherry trees, the Big Boss at
the head, lesser lights fading into the distance. The sake, wine and beer are
carried in leather briefcases. Employees take off their jackets only after the Big
Boss has shed his. Ties are loosened after faces have turned crimson, thanks to
sun, song or booze.

         The office Shinmai (newcomer but literally New Rice) comes at dawn to
stake out an idyllic spot under a tree. He also hands around the bottle and
makes sure the main honcho has the best morsels and no one breaks into song
before the honcho has sung a few lines. A Shinmai’s future in the company
can depend on the success of a hanami party, especially his ability to procure a
prime spot and his degree of obsequiousness.  

          â€œOffice outings promote team spirit,â€� explained Taro.

            Still, he admitted, if he had his way, he would prefer to wear jeans and a
T-shirt. He would rather join the ribald private parties where girls in platform
shoes and dyed blonde hair giggled, boys wore dunce’s hats, men sang
soulful songs with the help of karaoke sets and people asked indelicate
questions like: “Is your girlfriend pregnant or is she just putting on weight?â

        â€œCompany picnics are mandatory,â€� Taro explained: “They are
part of our tradition and help us build ourselves into a work unit no one ever
wishes to leave. That is the old philosophy.

         â€œBut,â€� he added: “Many younger people are looking for other
ways today.�

            Ueno Park is one of Japan’s most popular venues for the annual
veneration of cherry blossoms, the strange love affair of a people who marvel at
the pedals’ fragile beauty, born in a burst of color and buried in the mud by
the first wind.

          For the contemplative hanami remains synonymous with the swift
passage between life and death; for the traditionalists it creates a moment of
nostalgia for a way of life fluttering to the ground, borne by the winds of change.