Japan gets into swing of cherry blossom season

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For a small and delicate flower, cherry blossoms are very big in Japan. They are also notoriously short-lived and with the first early blooms already out, this week - and particularly this weekend - will witness the peak of the revelry that accompanies the surest sign of the arrival of spring.

At firms across the country, portable karaoke machines are being dusted off and new recruits are being left in no doubt that they are expected to reserve the best spot in the local park for the company's annual "hanami" festivities, a ritual that traces its roots back to the samurai of the 12th century Kamakura Period.

Similarly, local residents' associations, school groups and families will pack up picnics, drinks and tarpaulins and head for the local park.

Few things are as quintessentially Japanese as cherry blossom - these pale pink flowers are up there with Mount Fuji and geisha as indisputable motifs of the country - and the progress of the opening of the blooms is followed with near-religious zeal. Newspapers and television news programs carefully chart the northwards advance of the trees' blooming on maps, with commentators expounding on the significance of the early or late arrival of the blossoms.

This year, March 31 is expected to be the best day for admiring the blossoms, which officially arrived one day later than last year but still six days earlier than average.

The first to bloom will be the " somei yoshino" variety, which is so pale that it is almost white, followed by the " shidarezakura" and finally the deeper pink of the " yaezakura."

For the next week or more - if the weather is kind and the trees can hang on to their flowers - several of the biggest public parks in and around Tokyo, plus the grounds of shrines and even graveyards, will be the scenes of large-scale over-indulgence that ushers out the long winter and welcomes the new business and school years. And then, when the last flower has gone, Japan goes back to business-as-usual. The public letting down of hair is as brief as the passage of the cherry blossoms themselves.

Top cherry-blossom viewing spots:

Shinjuku Gyoen Park. Nearest subway station: Shinjuku Gyoenmae.

Yasukuni Shrine. Nearest station: Kudanshita.

Ueno Park. Nearest station: Ueno.

Meguro River. Nearest station: Nakameguro.

Negishi Forest Park, Yokohama. Nearest station Negishi.