Tokyo faces somber ‘hanami’ this year

by Setsuko Kamiya

The Japan Meteorological Agency said Monday that Tokyo’s cherry trees will enter full bloom within a week. But the capital’s annual blossom-viewing parties, or “hanami,” will be much quieter this year because festivals here and elsewhere are being called off in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

Organizers say they felt it was appropriate to refrain from any kind of festivities when so many lives were lost, but added that the decisions were also based on efforts to reduce the use of electricity. Some also cited security concerns.

“It was a disaster that’s beyond imagination, so we felt we should express our condolences,” said Kazumi Indei of the Chiyoda-ku Tourist Association, which organizes the cherry tree festival in Chidorigafuchi. The group has canceled its annual festival, including the evening cherry tree illumination.

Indei said the group has been trying to cut power usage by using more LED bulbs but decided to cancel it because “most people will just think that a lot of electricity is being used for lighting.”

Fear of another aftershock or blackout was another concern.

“We have about 200,000 visitors a day when the cherry trees are in full bloom and it will be packed with people. If trains stop like on the day of the earthquake, the nearby subway stations will be jam-packed,” he said.

According to Masahiro Kayano of Ueno Tourist Federation, which organizes the cherry tree festival in Ueno Park in Taito Ward, calling off the entire festival was a reasonable decision for them, because simply refraining from lighting some 1,100 lanterns in the evenings could trigger revelers to make fires, which are prohibited.

“We have a lot of people coming during the day, but more people come in the evenings to drink and eat” under the cherry trees, he said. It is the first time in 62 years that Ueno Park’s cherry tree festival will be canceled, he said.

Inokashira Park, which straddles the western Tokyo cities of Mitaka and Musashino, is also asking visitors to refrain from large and noisy parties this year.

Meanwhile, the cherry tree festival in Nagoya Castle park in Aichi Prefecture’s capital began Friday as planned, but organizer said they will use the opportunity to raise money to support the victims of the disaster.

At the Expo ’70 Commemorative Park in Osaka’s Suita City, the two-week cherry tree festival that started Saturday will be a bit smaller than usual, but lighting of the trees in the evenings will proceed as scheduled.

“Precious lives were lost and we do feel we should mourn for them, but at the same time, we want to support and energize eastern Japan from the west,” an Expo Park official said.

On Monday, Tokyo’s meteorological observatory announced that the “someiyoshino” cherry trees in Yasukuni Shrine near Chidorigafuchi have come into bloom. The announcement came around the same time as previous years, but six days later than last year, the observatory said.