The colour-drenched streets of Tokyo reached their peak this week. It’s sakura, or cherry blossom season. Much like Delhi’s resilient amaltas that blazes bright yellow in 45 degrees Celsius, the sakura is Japan’s metaphor for transient perfection. Despite tsunamis, earthquakes, even a nuclear disaster, its soft pink-and-white flowers bloom in breathtaking beauty, even amid mountains of rubble. Over centuries, their short-lived bloom has woven itself into the country’s imagination as a symbol of hope.
Hanami or cherry blossom viewing is an important feature of Japanese culture, dating back to the sixth century of the Heian period. I found myself in Tokyo for a birthday celebration with five friends during Golden Week, as this time of spring is called. Even a year would be too little to really get the elusive nuances of Japanese life. What’s immediately clear is their reverence for all things aesthetically perfect. In my imagination, Tokyo was a post-modern, cosmopolitan city of serious people; especially after I saw on Facebook that if the metro is even five minutes late, the train conductor personally apologises and hands passengers a “proof of lateness” slip for their records.
Barring that, my knowledge of Japan has come from reading Haruki Murakami and some dystopian crime fiction. I didn’t spot a jazz bar andthe surreal epiphanies of Murakami’s characters eluded me completely — other than the one I had when I saw the subway map).
Navigating the Underground requires deciphering the signage and hoping that somebody will understand you enough to help out. And though maps in English are available, they can be incomprehensible for outsiders. Since our plan was to be hectic, superficial tourists who wanted to cover as much of Tokyo as we could in a day, we stuck to taxis.
Our first destination was a visit to a Hanami party to truly soak up the spirit of the sakura. You don’t really need to go anywhere to spot the sakura tree since every street is bursting with flowers, still, there are many listed venues on TripAdvisor for great spots. The advent of the blossom is marked with a party in a garden, where family and friends spread blue tarpaulins under trees laden with flowers, the frail petals falling on grass like delicate snowflakes.
We chose Yoyogi Park, a five minute walk from Harajuku Station, close to another landmark, the Meiji Shrine. Entry is free. One of Tokyo’s largest parks with undulating lawns, ponds and forested areas of cherry blossoms, it was buzzing with picnickers; everyone had tumbled outside to revel among the flowers. Just outside, stalls were selling a variety of local delicacies including the pork bun (made famous by Kung Fu Panda). The atmosphere inside was carnivalesque — people strumming guitars, lots of dancing and drinking — a city brought together by the stunning sight of 600-plus cherry trees at different stages of flowering. Tokyo, so cold and impersonal from a distance, really feels like the friendliest place on earth here.
In the spring, the sun sets at 8 pm and the best way to explore the city is by foot. The pedestrian overpass near the Meiji Shrine is a great space to watch people. The neighbourhood has a few trendy boutiques selling wild Gothic clothing. Anyone into fashion can get sucked into this space for hours — I left most reluctantly for the tree-lined Ometesando, the main boulevard for shopping. Small lanes off it house local Japanese brands. At the far end of Ometesando is the Aoyama Flower Market Tea House, a lovely little cafe set amid thousands of varieties of fresh flowers. Little rectangular pots of scented herbs are placed on every table. There is an extensive tea menu, of lemon grass infusions, the famous Matcha Green Tea and a fragrant rose tea made with 100 per cent rose petals.
The big surprise, however, was the evening plan. A friend from Delhi had highly recommended something called The Robot Restaurant as the quintessential Japanese experience. It defies categorisation, except to drive home a country’s insatiable appetite for new technology. I can only explain it as a crazed and colourful nightmare, like a bad downer after dropping LSD. Every evening in a basement in Shinjuku district, the walls embellished with mirrors, video screens and psychedelic dragons entwined in flashing patterns, bikini-clad women stage a mock battle using gigantic robots. At some point faux animals, drums, dancers and a forest scene straight out of Avatar make a badly-timed entry; from what I gathered, the show is about a war between robots and humans. There’s migraine-enducing noise and Star Wars-type floats. A seemingly never-ending exhibition of cat calls, fire crackers, acrobats and wacky costumes make for an inexplicable spectacle. It’s hilarious and overwhelming and makes no sense. In the last sequence they hand out glow sticks to shellshocked viewers which they’re supposed to wave with gusto. You do — it’s such a relief to know it’s over.
We wrapped up our day afterwards, a little confused with the white noise of the robots. But then, one walk through its quiet alleys, past centuries-old palaces and the zen-like celebration going on in the gardens, you know Tokyo deserves a place of honour among the greatest cities of the world.