It is April and the cherry blossoms have arrived in Osaka -- a time when everyone takes a trip to parks around the city populated with cherry trees for the annual rite of ohanami (cherry-blossom viewing). Groups of friends, co-workers or relatives spread out their "picnic blankets" (usually ugly industrial blue tarps) and congregate under a flowering cherry tree to eat, drink and chit chat until late evening. A typical weekend afternoon will see hordes of boisterous, drunken people milling about in these parks. It is a very festive nature with nary a policeman in sight; the sight of open BBQ fires, huge piles of trash and drinking alcohol in public would make most newcomer-foreigners whisper how this would be illegal in the home country. But it is all just plain fun, and walking along the paths there is an infectious communal spirit of playfulness and camaraderie in harmony with the small pink petals that can be seen everywhere.
Among the more popular places to see cherry blossoms in Osaka is the area north and east of Osaka castle, called Sakuranomiya (sakura itself means "cherry" in Japanese). Here cherry trees line the canal for a stretch more than a kilometre long, and cherry trees can also be found lining the moat to Osaka castle. The Osaka Mint, located nearby, is especially famous for its promenade of cherry trees. The grounds, which are normally closed, are open to the public only during the cherry-blossom viewing season. Throngs of people come to walk down the long paths that run parallel to the canal and are flanked on both sides by tall thick cherry trees. Collective gasps of wonderment and the clicking of cameras can be heard all the way through the grounds. (There is also the megaphone screeching of security guards trying to guide the mass of people along the route -- on a busy day there will be very little elbow room as you are carried along by a river of people.)
The grounds of the Osaka Mint are spectacular for viewing the blossoms, but the route directly along the canal in front is also gifted with a wonderful collection of cherry trees. This area would be pristinely beautiful if it were not for the massive caravan of vendors that descend on the canal banks every spring, selling all sorts of snacks, souvenirs, and trinkets. With the dizzying numbers of people, the constant shouting of vendors selling their wares, the ear-splitting loudspeakers, and huge trash bins that dot the paths, it isn't exactly an ideal way to enjoy one of the loveliest sights in nature. Still, viewing cherry blossoms is always worth doing with friends or family, and Japanese take this time as one of the most important social events in their calendar.
Along with the beer and octopus snacks, it's hard to do ohanami without a camera. Anyone who has seen cherry blossoms in Japan can attest to the unstoppable urge to capture them on film. But I think most photographers realise it is deceptively difficult to get a decent shot of cherry blossoms. Even harder to get something original. I didn't really try and opted instead for pictures juxtaposing the vendors' garish signboards with the cherry blossoms. It struck me as ironic that most of the cherry trees along the route near the canal are obstructed by these vendors. And yet there is something unmistakably Japanese about that.