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Amid radiation concerns, Tokyo goes cherry-blossom viewing

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TOKYO | The biggest news in Tokyo over the past few days did not concern the Fukushima nuclear plant, the obliterated northeast, or even the re-election of the city's outspoken 78-year old governor, Shintaro Ishihara.

That is because the sakura cherry trees are in full bloom.

Despite signs posted around parks last week asking people to forego raucous parties this year out of respect for the nation's worst crisis since World War II, huge crowds of people have been gathering under ancient cherry trees to drink away their sorrows and anxieties with friends and co-workers.

At Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo, Sunday's parties were more subdued than previous years, with fewer disc jockeys playing music, and only a handful of drunken youth jumping into the pond on a warm afternoon.

Many foreigners have returned to Tokyo after bolting overseas amid aftershocks and nuclear meltdown scares.

Many revelers said they were relieved to see life returning to the city.

"I feel more relieved to be here than when I was back home, watching the news all the time," said Alexander Ali Khokhar, who left for a friend's wedding in Canada a few days after the March 11 earthquake sparked the series of disasters.

Gathering with friends from the United States, Australia, Britain and Japan, Mr. Khokhar and others talked about how they can help survivors in the disaster area.

"There's definitely a different vibe here now than when I left," Mr. Khokhar said. "People are becoming more active about doing things, instead of just passively waiting for something to happen."

Even notoriously narcissistic and apolitical Japanese hipsters, who normally enjoy chatting about the latest phones or fashions, are discussing the severity of events around them.

While drinking wine and sake on a blue tarp, many in a group of about 50 Japanese associated with the Sexystones rock label talked about how they can bring used clothing and other supplies to about half a million people who lost their homes and normal lives in the northeast.

"We have to help these people ourselves because the government isn't doing a good job of it," said Tetsuo Okawa, a bar worker in Tokyo.

"These parties are a good opportunity for us to organize efforts of our own."

After a month of shortages and aftershocks, life in Tokyo is suddenly more meaningful, less inane. Consumers, who once took for granted their abundance of products, are being more conscious of what they eat and drink.

Many are choosing sake or other drinks made in Japan to support a shell-shocked economy. Instead of reveling late into the night, many are returning home early to watch news and save electricity.

Most Tokyo residents, who could not afford to join the exodus of foreigners last month, are trying to follow routine schedules. Students returned to elementary schools Friday, in many cases mixing with new classmates whose families have fled the disaster zones up north.

In new suits and fresh haircuts, new employees are beginning lives in corporations. Companies, which began their fiscal year April 1, are trying to stick to long-term plans despite a short-term outlook of power shortages, reduced domestic demand and international concerns over radiation in Japanese products.

With Japan facing its toughest challenge since the war, many find strength in the rituals of cherry-blossom viewing, called hanami, which, beginning in the 8th century, runs deeper than the temporary disruptions to the rhythms of life in Japan.

Yet some people sitting under the sakura cherry trees say they are contemplating major life changes. Jonzi Ikehata, a drummer associated with the Sexystones crowd, said he might move away from Tokyo to Kyushu island in southern Japan, "because they have no earthquakes or tsunamis there, and not many nuclear reactors."

Others said they have no choice but to make the best of it in Tokyo, where the economy is still better than other regions.

Seeking to reassure his friends worried about Japan's future, soft-spoken rock icon Kenichi Asai, who has made more than 50 albums with various groups, points to the dirt under a sakura tree and said:

"We Japanese will survive, because we come from here, and we will always be here."

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