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TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - In good times and bad, Japanese never miss the opportunity to party under cherry trees during the brief period they bloom each spring.
Called "sakura" in Japanese, cherry blossoms are a national obsession and can be found in paintings, poetry and literature dating back hundreds of years.
This year the blossoms arrived amid a deep recession and as Japan was on edge for a North Korean rocket launch, but that has not stopped people from flocking to parks to enjoy the sight.
"North Korea launched a missile, but we're here," Ryoto Kato said, sipping sake with his pals under one of the 600 cherry blossom trees at Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine.
He was referring to the weekend's launch by Pyongyang that raised regional tension and drew widespread condemnation from around the world.
Kato arrived early at the shrine, which attracts half a million people during the flower season, to claim a good spot. It is common to wait hours before the party gets started.
Weather officials are also a part of the hype. The forecast maps went pink in March and April as officials issued predictions of when and where flowers would bloom.
"We saw it on television and thought of coming here. If we don't come now, we might not be lasting that long!" laughed 78-year-old Yasuko Okamoto, who was visiting Yasukuni shrine with her friends.
While the shrine is controversial for its commemoration of World War Two war criminals, its grounds are filled with cherry trees and these are the focus of picnickers each spring.
"I'm so lucky to be born in Japan," said Okamoto.
Editing by David Fox