As the blanket of pink sweeps across Higashiyama, the centre of 'Hanami' (cherry blossom viewing) lies right in our neighbourhood. Maruyama Koen (park) is THE place in Kyoto to layout your bright blue groundsheet, grab some barbequed squid, a few bottles of sake, a karaoke machine and enjoy the outdoors! Oh, and of course, have a look at the sakura (cherry blossom).
The Hanami ritual seems tied to food, song and photography. Eat, drink, sing, look and take a picture in front of a pink puff of petals. Hordes of Kyotoites and tourists pour into Maruyama Koen over a 10 day viewing period. The atmosphere is festive and friendly. The word "kirei" (pretty) resonates all over the park in various pitches and soon enough it's followed by "hai, cheesu" ("say cheese").
The park is also crowded with stalls selling Japanese versions of fast food - the aforementioned squid, takoyaki (octopus dumplings), yakisoba (fried buckwheat noodles) and okonomiyaki (often referred to as either Japanese pizza or cabbage pancakes).
The blooming of the cherry blossoms each April symbolises the end of winter and the beginning of the new Japanese school year. It's also the season when companies have their annual intake of new recruits, who are often ordered, as one of their first company duties, to sit by themselves all day, minding the company tarpulin until the real workers arrive in the evening. It's the time of the year that Japanese department stores refer to as "spring refresh" or "spring renewal".
Sakura also have a deep connection to the national psyche, apparently. A friend explained, "the momentary beauty of the sakura makes us feel sad and nostalgic so we try to appreciate their short life as enjoyably as possible".
Strolling through Maruyama park after 11pm, when the families have gone home and the fast food stalls are getting ready to pack up, 'beauty and sadness' are not images that come to mind. Instead the drunken university students and 'salarymen' stumble around under the sakura and either attempt to sing, or if they spot some 'tourists' like us, try to speak English and share their alcohol.