Tokyo - Visitors to Japan can pursue countless forms of enlightenment or entertainment, ranging from the delicate arts of calligraphy and ikebana (flower arranging) to the brute force of sumo, ninjitsu and other martial arts. However, there's one tradition that requires no particular skill or lifelong commitment. Hanami, literally flower viewing, is an ancient tradition with universal appeal.
Cherry blossoms are the flower in question, and viewing parties have been around since the beginning of the Heian era in the eighth century. The aristocracy, dressed in their finest kimonos, would feast under the blossoms with bento (lunch boxes) while drinking sake and composing poetry.
Minus the poetry, this tradition remains pretty much intact today.
While the flowers are the excuse for the whole thing, the real purpose is simple. Pick a tree with an appealing canopy of sakura (cherry blossoms), spread your blanket, unpack your lunch and start drinking.
The blossoms emerge with the first warm days of spring - in Tokyo this means the end of March or the start of April. Generally, the climate is gorgeous and the setting breathtaking, but the weather can be a touch unpredictable and a cold spell can shorten the blossoms' approximately two-week lifespan. By the second week, they're beginning to fall, and the shower of pink petals is mesmerizing. It's no wonder people have waxed so poetic on the subject, although these days you're more likely to find a crooner warbling on a portable karaoke machine then a poet composing haiku.
Those with a taste for sightseeing will find cherry blossom season a wonderful time for it, as the blossoms make the ancient temples and shrines that much more spectacular.
Hanami season is also your best opportunity to catch a glimpse of the reclusive geisha, perhaps making her way to an appointment or serving drinks to a client through a distant window. Maiko, young geishas in training, can be seen posing for pictures and strolling the streets of Kyoto, the ancient capital and cultural centre.
Bento boxes can be purchased at just about any convenience store. Made fresh daily, they are miles ahead of the fast-food options available in Canada. Sushi, sembei (rice crackers) and hot food provided by the many street vendors, such as yakitori (shish kebab), yakisoba (fried soba noodles) and takoyaki (octopus balls), are almost ridiculously cheap and tasty.
A famously hard-working country, Japan is equally hard-partying, especially at cultural and work-related events. Group solidarity is prized, so everyone is expected to turn up for social functions. Reluctant salarymen are often forced to drink more than they would like, and the results of this can be seen on any train home at the end of an evening.
In hanami season, the junior employees are sent out in the morning to secure a prime piece of real estate for the day's festivities. Workdays are no obstacle. Frequently, an entire office-load of workers can be found, dressed in their conservative blue suits, drunk and cheerful by early afternoon.
Cherry trees can be found in most parks, the most popular of which fill up fast.
Ueno Park in the heart of the old downtown is one of the best spots, and the cheerful babble of picnickers can be heard from across the park. By evening, the hardcore revellers, some of whom have been drinking since morning, have become quite festive.
Wandering down the cherry-tree-lined lane, you can see massive sumo wrestlers drinking shoulder to shoulder with hip Shibuya punks, evidence of all that is vital and exciting in modern Japan.