Tuesday, March 31, 2009

It's hanami time!

The Japanese are very aware of and fond of the seasons. Many of their traditional candies and sweets are seasonal and either represent the time of year or have flavors from fruits and foods of the season. They are also very aware of the fragility and impermanence of life.

So that is probably why they are crazy about hanami, the traditional cherry blossom viewing party. The symbol means "flower look" and is represented by the kanji symbols as 花見. It also could be because it is a time to let loose when spring has come and the weather warms.

Whatever the reasons are, these Japanese hanami nuts really know how to party!

On couchsurfing.com, we joined the Tokyo group, which now has over 1,000 members, and a member posted an annoucement that he was hosting a hanami party at Shinjuku park, about 30 minutes away on the Chuo train line. His directions were walk in the Shinjuku gate and keep walking straight. Look for a white tarp and a bunch of foreigners.

So we packed up some picnic food and drink and headed out with Ryan, our current couchsurfer. Luckily he has lived in Japan for a number of years and speaks/reads pretty good Japanese, so the trip was not too stressful. There was a large crowd of people buying tickets at the gate, and everyone was carrying bags of food and drink.

As we entered the park, we began to see large blue plastic tarps spread out on the grass everywhere. And sitting on these tarps were groups of people: young, old, university, office worker, you name it. And everybody was partying like it was the end of the world!

We warily waded into this throng, and lo and behold, among the blue tarps was a blue tarp full of gaijin (foreigners). They looked up at us expectantly, and when we said, "Are you couchsurfers?" They broke out into a cheer and welcomed us to their tarp.

It was finally a sunny, beautiful day after a week or so of chilly, dark weather. We sat in the sun and snacked on fishy rice crackers, dried cherries, and other treats. Some were drinking wine and sake. Other tarps had huge amounts of alcohol and drink; many of these tarps already had people passed out on them by noon.

We introduced ourselves to the group and found out that some were couchsurfing hosts and friends (Japanese and foreigner) and some where couchsurfing guests passing through. They were all very friendly and asked about us and our experiences in Japan so far. One group of four consisted of a young woman and her boyfriend who were traveling around Japan who had just been joined the night before by her parents, who were jet lagged and blearily looking around at the extremely noisy and rambunctious crowd.

After awhile, we could not sit on the ground any more and decided to walk around and see the 144-acre park, one of the oldest in Tokyo. The further we got away from the gate, the thinner the crowds, but it was by no means empty. There were people on tarps everywhere! As you can see from the photos linked to this page, it was very pretty and full of energy.

Back at the tarp, we talked to many couchsurfing hosts about how they deal with all the requests from couchsurfers and how they decided who can stay and for how long. It seems, understandably, that there are no easy answers, and it really depends on whatever limits we set on ourselves. Some people host everybody all the time, and some only have one or two a month. I think we will have to find some happy balance in the middle.

We also talked to many Japanese couchsurfers and friends, which was a really nice opportunity to talk to them about life in Japan. One woman had been employeed by Caterpillar in Japan but had recently been laid off and was looking for work. We chatted with an engineer at a medical technology company. I talked with two women at the end: one was a teacher at a junior high for learning disabled kids, and the other was a freelance sound engineer who had gone to university in the States.

After about four hours in the sun, we decided to leave before the mad crush of people heading for the Shinjuku train station. It was our first big hanami party, but I don't think it will be our last...

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