The end of March and the beginning of April is the cherry blossom (i.e. sakura) season in Osaka. It’s the time of the year when it’s easy to have a chat with strangers (or awkward acquaintances), namely about the voluptuous cherry trees – a topic that is on everyone’s lips, and which can be covered with very limited vocabulary. Perfect for a sluggish Japanese learner, like me.
During this season, tourists from all over the world flock to Japan to see the sakura. They infiltrate all the main touristy sakura spots in Osaka (and elsewhere in Japan) for a period of a couple of weeks.
But cherry trees are everywhere in Osaka (and Japan), not just in well-known parks and big Castle grounds. Cherry trees decorate train lines, school yards, supermarket car parks, industrial sites and flyovers, i.e. hardly the most picturesque of places, although one week a year, cherry blossom adds some glamour to these places (see photos below).
If you don’t want to compete with thousands of other cherry blossom fans and their tripods or iPhones, the above locations would be a safe bet for a non-crowded sakura viewing spot.
I don’t usually choose to share our cherry blossom viewing experience with 10,000 other people at Sakuranomiya (one of the most famous cherry blossom places in Osaka). Then again, I wouldn’t really settle with admiring the trees at a supermarket car park either.
But yesterday morning I felt brave and thought that I would take the kids and go for a quick walk around Osaka Castle, which is one of the most popular places in Osaka for cherry blossom viewing. But when we got to the tube station and saw the huge groups of tourists, we returned home, got our picnic blanket, board games, books, toys and some little snacks like chocolate, mandarins, and nuts to take with us to a nearby Kouzo Gu shrine, which is slightly off the beaten track, but beautiful nevertheless.
When we got there, we took some photos of the sakura (see below) and thought we’d sit down for half an hour to admire the trees, have our snacks, play a game or two of top trumps and/or read a book.
But we struggled to find a space to sit in, partly because it was quite busy and partly because I didn’t know what the etiquette was. For instance, can one just go and sit down anywhere or are some areas off limits. And the blue plastic sheets on the ground? – are they there for one to go and sit on them, or are they the Japanese equivalent to a German’s towel on a poolside sun lounger in Rhodes?
We played it safe and eventually sat down in a small gap between a big group of people and a small plastic Micky Mouse patterned sheet, on which there was a piece of paper that said something in Japanese.
We got our picnic quilt and our snacks out and sat down, but annoyingly, every so often we got a waft of something unpleasant. Hold on!! Was it some drunken cherry blossom viewers earlier smelly deposit that was covered by the Micky Mouse sheet and the note was warning cherry blossom viewers not to sit there unless they wanted to experience the sakura with an aroma somewhat less attractive than the cherry blossoms!? No wonder no-one had chosen to sit in that spot. I felt like everyone was looking at us because us foreign idiots had chosen to sit next to a pile of poo.
Because I didn’t want to come across as not knowing what I was doing, I thought we should just sit there for 15 minutes, eat our snacks and then escape the stench and unfamiliar cultural conventions by heading home.
But while we were sitting there, one person from the big group next to us walked over and gave us a plastic container with 10 chicken wings, two jumbo rice crackers in between which was a fried egg, barbeque sauce and mayonnaise (typical Japanese outdoor food), bags of sweets for the kids and a can of beer for me. They probably thought that our cherry blossom viewing grub of mandarins and chocolate was embarrassingly puny and they wanted to correct the situation. I tried to protest and explain that we’ve already eaten, but the group wouldn’t have it. We sheepishly returned the favour and gave them a half eaten (Finnish) chocolate bar as a token of our appreciation.
Having unwittingly acquired all that food meant that we couldn’t escape the stinky situation quite as quickly as I wanted.
But then an elderly couple walked over and removed the Micky Mouse sheet to reveal…well, nothing but the ground. There was no poo on the ground next to us (the stench must have been dog poo in the green area behind us) and it dawned on me that the old couple had reserved a picnic spot with their sheet like Germans would do in Rhodes. The reason why no-one sat where we were sitting was not because of poo, but because no-one else had dared to park their picnic blanket on the Micky Mouse sheet’s owners’ turf! And the reason why we got some funny looks was because the people around us where shocked by the cheek of us calmly taking over some poor elderly couple’s cherry viewing spot.
Of course, being Japanese, no-one said anything but they probably came up with a few carefully selected names in their mind for the foreigners who didn’t respect the picnic sheet tactic. At that point, we could but pretend that we were oblivious to the cultural faux pas that we had just committed and carry on eating our chicken wings.
The elderly couple squeezed their picnic blanket next to ours. It was so close that it appeared as if we were part of their group. Even some of their friends who arrived and saw us exclaimed something along the lines of ‘Hey, international cherry blossom viewing!’ only to realize that yes, we were ‘international’ but not viewing the blossoms with them.
Anyway, we stayed for another hour or so nibbling on the food, having a little chat with the big group and a few other cherry blossom viewers and then headed home with contact details of some new friends. I assume had we stayed for a little longer, we would have made friends even with the, eventually merry, Micky Mouse group.
In cherry viewing style, many of the groups probably stayed under the cherry trees until the evening or even until the night, drinking, eating, chatting and enjoying the cherry blossoms in the moonlight.
Before we left, I took some photos of the sakura in the night-time. The quality is poor but I hope you nevertheless manage to get a feel for the absolutely amazing beauty cherry trees create, day and night.