O Hanami? Oh Hell Yeah!

O Hanami? Oh Hell Yeah!

Last month my sister and her husband came to Tokyo for a visit.  I made intricate plans; used a ruler to carve out grids on our calendar; I matched favorite restaurants with favorite neighborhoods — keeping a sharp eye to let them experience some of our local pleasures so they could see how we live.  I was pretty merciless, demanding long walks and endless bicycle rides.  I took them to my favorite izakayas; to tempura shops in Koenji, to the great Café Violon in Asagaya; they bought red underwear in Sugamo and kitchenware in Kappabashi. I even hauled them out to Tateishi and the pleasures of stand up sushi at Sakaezushi.  It was, in all honesty, a completely eccentric tour of Tokyo.  My sister noted — with kindness I might add — that she found it funny that I could go all the way to Japan and search out a locale (Tateishi) that most reminded her of the basement food court in Flushing that I once dragged her to.  My one tip of the hat to prevailing custom was to make sure that they could enjoy the great blossoming of cherry trees that blesses the city in late March.  I described to my sister the concept of “Ohanami” — the Japanese tradition of taking in sakura (cherry blossoms).  Among other places, we went to Ueno Park to witness the flowers.  In my sister’s mind, Ohanami was a quiet, contemplative exercise in communing with transient beauty. The reality kind of stunned her.  All along the Ueno Park pathways, blue plastic tarps were stretched out side-by-side with thousands of Japanese folks loudly and drunkenly cracking open cans of Chu-Hi, downing whiskey, eating udon, snacks, more beer, and even more shochu.  Every blossom was in the process of being photographed and posed in front of.  Ohanami is a party, not a group meditation session.

I barely paid attention to cherry blossoms before I got to Tokyo.  I knew they existed.  I liked them when I saw them.  But, they were no different than a daffodil, a crocus, a tulip — a splash of color pushing back against a long winter.   I have been fully converted to sakura worship over the past year and a half. Cherry trees are everywhere and in bloom, they rejuvenate the city.  Drab, dirt-filled schoolyards transform into soft pink wonderlands; concrete riverbeds become 18th-century woodblock prints.  Army bases turn into nature preserves. There is a park near me that we have named the “sad park”.  There is one rusty, dangerous slide and in summer it is simply beset by swarms of mosquitos.  For a week or two, even this depressing spot becomes glorious as an old, weeping cherry tree dangles its delicate petals against clear blue skies — I discovered an old man there a few weeks back.  He sat alone on a bench nursing a can of beer.  He told me he was 92 and remembered the trees being planted when he was in his thirties.   I dive headfirst into the season — plan bike rides to sakura-laden shrines, walk with my head in the flowers. One Sunday, my wife, daughter and I bought some drinks, some take-out food and visited a little bike path near our house lined with benches and cherry trees.  I drank my beer, ate some delicious karage and felt a little bit like a failure.  Next to us a big family had the signature blue tarp; they had folding chairs, a folding table, coolers filled with drinks and two gas burners!  They made oden, enoki mushrooms with miso and butter wrapped in tinfoil; they grilled meat and fish — the smoke fragrant.  My little bag of fried chicken seemed a cop-out.  I needed to up my Hanami game.

The next week I bought a blue tarp.   Sunday arrived and it was beautiful — sunny,  in the 70s.  Rain and wind were expected on Monday, effectively bringing the cherry blossom season to an end. The time to act was now.  I invited a few friends, gathered up my kids, my mother-in-law, perched my grill and charcoal in my bike basket and headed to the same lane as the week before.  We found a perfect spot, nestled amongst the cherry trees and secured our tarp.  I went off and bought chicken, veggies, pork, snacks and beer.  My friends arrived with their kids, more beer and bottles of sake and sparkling rosé. My son fretted a bit — “I don’t see anyone grilling!” (I understand his embarrassment, we stick out as a foreign family in a very local neighborhood and illegal grilling would definitely call attention to us.)  I grilled skewers of chicken and veggies marinated in yogurt, turmeric, cumin, garlic and lemon and dusted them in sumac and zaatar. We sat on our blue tarp, drinking, eating chips, telling lame jokes while trying to explain the very concept of Western jokes.  My daughter explored the length of the path on her bike.  My mother-in-law napped.   My son quoted entire South Park routines.  We popped open the rosé pouring the frothy liquid into plastic cups and considered ourselves lucky if the wind blew a few sakura petals into our drinks.  We listened to deep roots music on my son’s boom box.  Election season is soon, so a few politicians wandered the path, stopping to introduce themselves.  Grandchildren pushed their ancient, wheelchair-bound grandmothers, withered arms sneaking out of blankets to catch a few falling petals.  Dog walkers, families, bike riders, couples arm-in-arm promenaded by, nodding in welcome, smiling at a hanami done properly; occasionally they recognized my mother-in-law and stopped for a brief chat.  As the sun came down, I put pork chops on the bbq and ran to 7-11 for a re-up of sake.  By 6 pm, dusk started to settle, the temperature fell and a pink, diffuse light wrapped us in the solitude of being the only people left.  Drunkenly, we tidied up, erasing all traces of our Ohanami.

A perfect day.  A day that I could never have had in New York.  One of my friends who joined us is also from Brooklyn. We both marveled at the freedom of hanging out in Japan, grilling, drinking, listening to music.  We explained to our Japanese friends — who still see New York as the apogee of freedom — how something like our Ohanami could never happen in NYC anymore.  There would always be a bothersome cop; an annoyed neighbor; a suspicious local; a dubious official explaining how you need a permit to have an open flame wherever it is you might be.  And even if none of that happened, you would simply have the awareness that some stress was always lurking on the horizon.  It makes me sad because I remember New York when it sweated freedom — the New York that never carded, never cared unless you were firing a gun; the New York of weed-filled movie theaters and people that didn’t say shit about anything.  But, that is the past, a ghost, a memory.  My future is paved with the pink blush of cherry blossom petals shivering in the wind.

2 Replies to “O Hanami? Oh Hell Yeah!”

  1. This is a lovely and captivating read. I felt as though I was present as I followed along through your descriptions of everything; the sights, sounds and smells.

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