Monday, January 26, 2015

Japan Day 9: {Osaka} Hanami Picnic at Osaka Castle

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The Japanese has a great fondness for cherry blossom or sakura. Their affinity for this flower dates back to centuries ago. The sakura are considered sacred in Japanese history as they believe that gods exits inside the trees. Offerings were used to be made at the root of sakura trees for a bountiful harvest that season.

It was said that the practice of hanami (cherry blossom viewing) used to be limited to the elite of the Imperial Court.  The emperor would hold flower-viewing ceremonies underneath the sakura blossoms. After the ceremony, they celebrated the offering with sake and sumptuous food.

As time passed, more sakura were planted so even the common people could enjoy hanami. Today, the Japanese continue the tradition of hanami, but it is more to celebrate with family and friends by drinking and eating. Thousands of people fill the parks, gathering in great numbers wherever the sakura blossoms are found, to hold parties under the flowering trees.

Late March and early April are the best times to see the most cherry blossoms around Japan. As having a hanami picnic is top in my list of things-to-do in Japan, I consulted this website as I prepared our itinerary.

Luckily for us, one of the best places to do a hanami picnic was at the grounds of the Osaka Castle. I figured I could schedule one day to do the hanami, visit Osaka Castle, and go to the nearby Osaka Museum. Winner!

The gardens surrounding the Osaka Castle abound with many varieties of flowering cherry trees and are filled with Japanese families enjoying a picnic under falling petals.  Since the Osaka Castle is one of the more popular hanami spots, I made sure to arrive early so we can get a spot.

As we went in, the area near the entrance was already sparsely occupied with a few families. I noticed that because the blooms were not that abundant, there were fewer people choosing that spot. It could only mean that we had to go in deeper into the garden.

True enough, as we walked further, I could already see from a distance the trees further down appeared as beautiful clouds!

For most Japan tourists, hanami will probably just mean a quick stroll in the park, but I want my kids to experience more than that.  I want to be able to enrich their cultural horizon by providing for the traditional experience that involves a picnic under the sakura blooms... complete with a curtain of falling petals. Para bongga! Which means I will be "the best mom ever" in their eyes! teehee!

{Doing a hanami is actually very easy, there are no formal ceremonies to it! }

1. Lay out a mat/tarp on your selected spot. 
Remember it's on a first come first served basis. 
Say what??? Picnic Mat!?! Don't worry, we didn't have one with us, too. But I am nothing if not resilient! :) I looked around and found a friendly-looking Japanese lady who was sitting on a big tarp all by herself, I went up to her and politely asked if we can share. She said yes, so yay!!!

Luckily, she can understand English so we were able to get to know each other better.  She was able to answer all my questions... first among which was, "Why are you alone?" #chismosa.  It turns out that she was assigned to reserve this big area area for her company's after office party.  She said that she and her other office mates are working on hourly shifts reserving their mat on the castle grounds as early as 6am. True enough, after an hour, she bade us good-bye and another person sat in her place.

She did stipulate some requirements before she let use her tarp. First, we were only allowed to use it until 5:30 pm, because the office party starts at 6pm.  Second, no shoes allowed inside the tarp (So Japanese!!!)

2. Be sure to come prepared with a hanami bento. 
The basement food courts of department stores sell cheap hanami bento boxes. 

You can easily just also purchase food at any convenience store and enjoy it at the hanami picnic.  Just remember to to keep the plastic bags so you can use it to throw your trash when you are done.  Also, this cherry blossom season is the only time that alcoholic beverages may be brought is inside the park.

3. Lie around, read a book, listen to music! 
Do whatever you feel like doing!

4. Enjoy the marvelous sight of the sakura blooms. 
Be sure to thank God that a magnificent experience such as this comes for FREE!

5. Leave your picnic spot clean. As in immaculately clean. 
Littering is frowned upon by ALL the Japanese.

~ * * * ~

Since the mat we borrowed was really big, there was a group of university girls who occupied/borrowed the other end of the mat. 

I learned from the Japanese office lady that it is a common practice to send the junior workers to reserve a picnic spot early in the morning and either mark it with the group's name and party's starting time or to have somebody positioned there during the whole day until the rest of the group arrives after work.
That explained why I saw a lot of office workers sitting on tarps on our way in

Some of the mats were unattended, but there were makeshift tables made out of cardboard boxes, in preparation for the big party that comes after office hours. 

A hanami is one of Japan's oldest festival, but it is still enthusiastically celebrated up to this day.  It is such a brilliant experience that I think everyone who visits Japan should try this.

We absolutely love opportunities like this where we travel global but get a chance to live like a local. A travel experience like this transforms the kids, even if they may not realize it at that point because it has immersed them in a tradition that is totally foreign to them. Truly one of the perks of our self-guided trip!

Do you have any experience of living like a local while traveling? Do share!

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