Public alcohol consumption or intoxication is totally frowned upon in Japan EXCEPT Hanami time! At cherry blossom viewing, people can picnic on the park ground with open alcoholic drinks and even with kegs of beer. The municipalities publish the dates that people are allowed to picnic on the ground based on the cherry blossom forecast of the year.
I went to 2 Hanami areas while people were festively celebrating the season. In Hakodate, Goryokaku Park is a very popular Hanami spot for locals and visitors. I went there on sunny Saturday afternoon (4/29th), and the festivities were going on with about 50% of flowers blooming. I went back 3 days later in nice, balmy and sunny National holiday afternoon, and the park was packed with Hanami visitors. The view was just breath taking. The great thing about Goryokaku park is that it’s large and cherry blossoms are just about everywhere, outlining the star shaped park. There are hills surrounding the star shaped park also. We can climb on the hill and be above the cloud of the blossoming trees.
I visited Maruyama Park in Sapporo on Monday, May 1st, and only a few trees were half blooming. There was a park full of picnic crowds in the afternoon of weekday/workday. It was a cold day with rain shower in the morning. I chatted up with a taxi driver about cherry blossom viewing culture. According to him, people who actually appreciate cherry blossom would visit the park, view the flowers, take pictures and go home. People who come for drinking and picnicking would come with rain or shine, in any weather condition, with or without cherry blossom blooming. In other words, cherry blossoms are just means to the end, which is picnicking with consumption of alcohol.
Most picnic goers I saw in both places were barbecuing Ginghis Kan (thinly sliced lamb meat on the grill – named after a Mongolian war load). It’s a very popular Hanami picnic food in Hokkaido. You don’t see it in other parts of Japan. Catering companies provide cooking grills, food, drinks and utensils. All you need to do is to show up at the appointment time. It’s so popular that people have to make appointments well ahead of time, and the cherry blossom can bloom before or after your designated picnic time. So, they may as well enjoy the picnic, food and drinks even without flowers to see, and even in bad weather.
There were a lot of foreign visitors (mostly Chinese) at Hanami in Goryokaku park, which is the #1 Hanami spot in Hokkaido. You have to be very lucky to hit the right dates for the full blooming trees when you book your trip well in advance. I was very lucky to be able to stay in Hakodate for the duration of entire cherry blossom season this year.