March 31, 1997 in Nation/World

Cherry Bombed Japan’s Contemporary Celebration Of Spring Steeped In Alcohol

Susan Warner Philadelphia Inquirer

A puffy pink cloud has settled in over the city this week, as its world-famous cherry trees reach the peak of their spring flowering. The delicate pink and white cherry blossoms have come to symbolize Japanese serenity and oneness with nature. For centuries, they have inspired poetry and reverie.

But in today’s Tokyo, Japanese celebrate the blossoms in a more contemporary fashion.

They get stinking drunk.

Thousands crammed into Tokyo’s public parks over the weekend to gather beneath the flowering trees and glance up at the blossoms occasionally, while downing sake, whiskey and beer.

“We are here to see the beautiful trees. But we are also here for the party,” said Chieko Mitsui, who came at Ueno Park in Central Tokyo at 1 a.m. Saturday to claim a prime spot for her office’s party.

The park’s central boulevard was lined with hundreds of party groups, usually 10 to 20 office colleagues, who gathered to view the blossoms and celebrate the arrival of spring.

The revelers spread out blue plastic tarpaulins and flat cardboard boxes under the trees like picnic blankets. They removed their shoes and sat in a circle. In the center of each circle they laid out platters of sushi, dried fish and seaweed. The more elaborate spreads had rice cookers and hibachis grilling beef and fish.

But around the periphery of each tarp there were cartons of sake, Japan’s high-octane rice wine, bottles of liquor, and cases of beer, primarily Asahi dry.

“Oh, and many cocktails,” said Mitsui, a secretary at a Tokyo construction company. “California wine, we have California wine,” called out Takahashi Tatsuhiro, at another party across the boulevard.

Tatsuhiro identified himself as director of cherry-blossom parties for the Arakawa Ceramic Co. in Tokyo. By 2 p.m. Saturday, his company’s party had been under way for six hours, and Tatsuhiro’s thick, black-rimmed glasses were tilting off the right side of his nose.

For 10 years, employees of the bathroom-fixtures company have gathered under the trees in Ueno Park to honor the cherry blossoms, which are called “sakura” in Japanese.

This traditional cherry-blossom celebration is tied to the coming of spring and the kick off of rice-planting season. And while few Japanese spend their days cultivating rice anymore, they still respond to the hopefulness of spring, even if it signals the beginning of another year of selling bathroom fixtures.

“It is tradition. This is Japanese culture,” said Toshiyuki Yui, chief executive of Arakawa. “Do you want a beer?”

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