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Picnics Under Cherry Trees Call for Pizza

Fast-food places are homing in on a slice of new business; delivering to blossom viewers at Japan's parks.

April 06, 2001|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Japan's fast-food restaurants have hit upon a new way of capitalizing on the rite of spring known as cherry blossom viewing: delivering pizza, slathered with toppings such as potato salad or tuna fish, to your picnic blanket.

Pizza Hut and Domino's, along with some Chinese food and other takeout places, have been out in droves in the last few days in Japan's parks catering to hanami--"looking at cherry blossom"--parties.

Such affairs, which often last well into the night, are an excuse to linger under the beautiful, if temporal, canopies of pink-tinged sakura blossoms, making merry with friends and corporate colleagues.

Finding those you know in a sea of thousands is difficult enough. But finding a stranger who has just ordered pizza is a testament to the ubiquity of Japan's cell phones, which well over half of its 126 million people own.

"It would be impossible to do this without mobiles," said Yuji Katsura, 25, who was staffing the temporary Pizza Hut headquarters in Tokyo's Komazawa Park--a small orange pup tent sporting a big corporate sign.

U.S.-based Pizza Hut, which has 265 stores in Japan, and Domino's, which has 197 outlets, appeared to be running the most aggressive blanket-to-blanket cherry blossom campaigns in Tokyo. But a few smaller firms were seen too, including the 11-outlet "China Quick," which delivers its spring rolls, stir-fries and fried chicken in partially covered motorcycles sporting emblems boasting, "Since 1999."

McDonald's 3,619 restaurants don't deliver, but its outlets near parks also do a booming business around cherry blossom time.

Pizza Hut dispatched several employees to Komazawa Park just after 8 a.m. Sunday--it had snowed Saturday, scuttling many would-be sales--to hand out fliers advertising the special hanami delivery service along with the regular menu.

The lineup included the "Idaho Special," featuring potato salad, bacon and onions atop the usual tomato and cheese; the "Tuna Mild," with tuna, mayonnaise and corn; and the "Hawaiian," with that "fruity, sweet-and-sour taste" of pineapple, ham and corn.

The price: $25 for a large. Relatively cheap, by Japan's standards.

By the time the advance pizza team arrived, about 1,000 unlucky people had already set up tarpaulins and blankets in the sprawling park. They had been dispatched hours before party time to reserve prime spots for the rest of their groups. (In the standard corporate hanami, the lowest guy on the totem pole gets the job.)

Along with the menu, Pizza Hut handed out a map of the park, which it had divided into zones, so customers could note the area their blanket was in.

When it comes time to order, the dispatcher asks for the customer's picnic zone. Then the store phones the employees at the pup tent, who pick up the pizza on the park's outskirts. Then, speaking to the customer via cell phone, the delivery person homes in on the picnicking spot, amid a sea of blankets and tarps, bicycles, dogs, skateboards and scooters.

If all else fails, they can arrange to meet at a prominent landmark or the pup tent.

Of course, any restaurant or delivery service that delivers to homes in Japan has plenty of experience in frustration. Major thoroughfares have names, but the thousands of tiny blocks and alleys, many so small that only a single car can pass, do not.

Despite it all, Japan's delivery services are legendary for their efficiency. But many cherry blossom watchers turned up their noses at the thought of having pizza at such a traditional event.

Akira Inoue, 58, and his group came armed with a portable burner and a pot to cook nabe, a stew of vegetables and meat.

"We have to prepare this type of elaborate lunch," he said. "We wouldn't even consider having a pizza."

*

Rie Sasaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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