Urban Picnics: a Tokyo mental health opportunity that’s surprisingly subversive

Layla McCay, Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, writes:

“Cherry blossom season is upon us in Japan [or was, as of last March]. The national news is filled with cherry blossom reports: it feels like everybody is invested in the specific day that the flowers will bloom in their town. There is good reason for this interest, and not just the national appreciation of beauty, flowers and the ephemeral nature of life. Cherry blossom behaviour is part of Japan’s national psyche. In a unique moment of nationwide celebration, the country’s usual work-focused culture presses pause, and a different priority is embraced: cherry blossoms viewing, known as hanami. People walk amongst cherry blossoms, admire them, photograph them… Admiring cherry blossoms is part of the pulse of Japan.

As the flowers fleetingly blossom, so too does another fleeting pleasure: leisurely outdoor social interaction. Everyone dashes to their nearest cherry blossom location to enjoy raucous, convivial, drunken hanami parties, crowded on blue tarpaulin sheets spread under the trees. Offices, universities, friends, and just about anyone else organises hanami parties, characterised by picnicking (with copious alcohol usually involved). Office workers are even sent to the park early in the morning to secure a good spot.

But as the blossoms start to fade, so too does this particular form of social interaction. At the end of cherry blossom season, Japanese people pack up their picnic blankets and store them ’til next spring. This seems a missed opportunity: many people live in very small homes, particularly those in large cities like Tokyo, which inhibits their inviting others to their homes for socialising. Picnics should be an ideal solution. And yet they are not. Part of the reason may be lack of venue. Tokyo has only 5.4 m2 of green space per person; this compares to 11.8m2 in Paris, 26.9m2 in London and 29.1 m2 in New York. While picnicking takes over many public spaces during hanami season, for the rest of the time this is not appropriate, and many parks are designed to be admired, not as appropriate social dining spots for adults. But finding the right venue is not the only hurdle. Picnics do not tend to be part of Japanese culture. According to many Japanese people, picnicking outside at any non-hanami time of the year is generally considered ‘bizarre’, ‘childish’, and even ‘suspicious’.

Hiroshi Ota, an architect, and Kaori Ito, an urban designer, helped establish the Tokyo Picnic Club in 2002. Its mission: to tempt Tokyoites to picnic outside of hanami season, socialising in natural settings year-round. They claim: ‘to picnic is the urban culture to utilise the public spaces, to make up for the deficiencies of our city life.’ The appreciation of parks is a cultural norm, but the idea of picnics is unusual …”

Read the remainder of this article at Sanity and Urbanity: a UD/MH blog (“Reading, seeing, thinking and doing urban design to improve mental health”)

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