My home town of Washington, DC is famous for its cherry blossoms, a gift from Japan in the early twentieth century. Living in Washington prepared me somewhat for the frenzy of sakura (cherry blossom) season, though here in Japan the excitement extends nationwide. There’s even a word for viewing sakura: o-hanami. While jaded Washingtonians don’t necessarily trek down to the Tidal Basin to check out the blossoms, absolutely everyone in Japan takes part in o-hanami. Parks known for their sakura bring in reinforcements to direct cars, herd people, and answer questions, all with polite smiles.
The kids’ school organizes activities for parents including fitness classes, cultural demonstrations, and seasonal outings. There are so many events that a paid school staff member works full time to manage them all. On Friday I headed out with a group of moms on one such outing to visit Chidori-Ga-Fuchi Park, a spot famous for its waterfront sakura. The park sits on the edge of the Imperial Palace grounds, and its pond was originally a moat built for the palace. Our guide was Emi, a mom whose kids have already graduated from the school but still stays active in the St. Maur community. Emi speaks fluent Japanese and expertly herded us onto the right trains, then guided us through the park.
This scene pictured below happened over and over. A crowd gathers in one spot, so everyone thinks it must be a great view and queues up. Several moms inched their way to the front and scored front row spots–only to wonder why everyone waited for such a lackluster view. Relatively speaking, anyway.
After an hour of so of picture-taking we headed for an early lunch at a tiny Indian restaurant. Emi was smart to get us in early; we arrived to an empty restaurant, but by the time we left a queue of diners stretched up the stairs.
After lunch we headed over to Yasukuni Shrine, a famous if somewhat controversial shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead between 1867 and 1951. I’ll let you read more about it here, but these sentences sum it all up pretty well: “Of the 2,466,532 people contained in the shrine’s Book of Souls, 1,068 were convicted of war crimes by a post World War II court. Of those, 14 are convicted Class A war criminals(‘crimes against peace’).” So understandably citizens from Japan and abroad get somewhat testy when, say, the prime minister and other elected officials go there to pray.
Checkered past notwithstanding, the shrine really shines during sakura season. We strolled past a line of food stalls and plant sales, snapped a few more photos, then headed home.