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Taking a stroll through one of Japan’s oldest Western-style public parks, Yuji Kimura examines scores of sakura (cherry trees) lining the main pedestrian walkway leading toward the Tokyo National Museum.

Kimura, who owns a bag shop in Ueno, a bustling working-class area of northeastern Tokyo, has helped graft many of the cherry trees admired every spring.

“They’re like my children,” the 65-year-old says with a proud grin, explaining the horticultural technique employed in their reproduction by taking the desired tree’s stem and attaching it onto the rootstock of another tree so the tissues of the plants are joined together.

Around 800 cherry trees of 50 or so varieties can be found in Ueno Park, which opened in 1876 and has since flourished as the cultural center of the capital, surrounded by a zoo, museums and the Tokyo University of the Arts, one of Japan’s most prestigious art schools.

Iconic cherry blossoms in Tokyo | GETTY IMAGES
Iconic cherry blossoms in Tokyo | GETTY IMAGES

During cherry blossom season, the park welcomes the most number of visitors than any of the roughly 600 viewing spots in Japan — parks, temples, shrines and other locations — reflecting its centuries-old status as the nation’s “hanami” (blossom viewing) mecca. This year, however, fears of the spreading COVID-19 pandemic have dampened enthusiasm for the spring ritual.

Hanami has been a trustworthy moneymaker for Japan, bringing in hundreds of billions of yen across the nation between late March and early May each year when the pink blooms make their way up the archipelago, giving businesses incentive to cash in on the national phenomenon.

Travel bans, however, are hurting tourist figures, and public fears over the threats posed by the coronavirus are forcing popular hanami spots to refrain from engaging in festivities, delivering another blow to a nation already reeling from the economic impact of the outbreak.

“We’ve seen a surge in hanami-goers over the past decade or so,” says Kimura, a central member of Ueno Sakuramori no Kai, a group of self-described sakura guardians who help maintain the cherry trees in the park along with metropolitan government officials.

Born and raised in Ueno, Kimura says the neighborhood has always been closely associated with cherry trees, a connection that goes back centuries.

“Every year, Ueno Park fills up with hanami-goers,” he says, “but I’m afraid the turnout this year could be modest.”

Tourism slump

In 2018, Katsuhiro Miyamoto, a professor emeritus at Kansai University, calculated that hanami season reaped around ¥650 billion nationwide, ¥160 billion or so of which came from foreign tourists. That’s roughly eight times the annual economic contribution of Tokyo Skytree, the capital’s 634-meter-tall landmark tower that opened in 2012.

“Including travel expenses, wining and dining, and accomodation fees, I estimated that an average Japanese would spend roughly ¥4,000 for hanami, while overseas tourists would likely spend around ¥17,000, considering most of them will have to pay for lodging,” he says.

A giant shidare-zakura (weeping cherry tree) towers over the entrance of Ueno Park. | GETTY IMAGES
A giant shidare-zakura (weeping cherry tree) towers over the entrance of Ueno Park. | GETTY IMAGES

Miyamoto adds that the number of hanami attendees have grown substantially over the past 10 to 15 years, thanks in part to the media featuring hanami spots across the nation and introducing people to the many types of sakura trees Japan has to offer — from the most popular someiyoshino cultivar to wild breeds native to Japan such as the yamazakura and edohigan. Meanwhile, he says the number of overseas tourists has also soared during that period, with hanami being a major draw promoted by guidebooks and travel agencies.

“My wife and I frequent local hanami spots, but we’ve noticed folks taking tour buses and spending nights just to visit well-known hanami sites such as Hirosaki Park in Aomori Prefecture,” he says, referring to the famed sightseeing destination in the northern prefecture that draws more than 2 million hanami visitors, second only to Ueno Park, which gathers around 4 million people, according to Jorudan Co., the operator of a public transport route navigation site.

“We can’t expect hanami to bring in ¥650 billion this year, especially with the major drop in Chinese tourists,” Miyamaoto says. While a record-high 9.59 million Chinese nationals visited Japan in 2019, that number is expected to fall significantly with the clampdown on travel to and from China, the world’s second largest economy. Major department stores, including Takashimaya and Isetan Mitsukoshi, have reported a 70 percent and 63 percent drop in duty-free sales for February, respectively, as retail outlets are deprived of foreign shoppers.

Meanwhile, the growing list of officially closed museums, theme parks, and sports and cultural events is dampening the appetite for public gatherings such as hanami, which finds families, friends and colleagues come together under the sakura for picnics.

Some companies are taking advantage of the atmosphere of jishuku (voluntary self-restraint), suggesting alternative means to enjoy the cherry blossoms.

Cherry trees in full bloom in Tokyo's Inokashira Park | GETTY IMAGES | GETTY IMAGES
Cherry trees in full bloom in Tokyo’s Inokashira Park | GETTY IMAGES 

Nihon Kotsu Co., Tokyo’s largest taxi operator, is offering what it calls a “hanami taxi” between March 20 and April 10, where passengers can experience a two-hour tour of the capital’s famed sakura spots for ¥10,280.

Tokyo-based Space Market Inc., a venue-rental marketplace for unused or idle properties, offers “indoor hanami” spaces for people who would like to indulge in the seasonal festivity from the comfort of private rooms with views of cherry trees or interiors decorated with artificial cherry blossoms and sakura-themed wall projections.

Yuri Yoshida, a spokeswoman for the company, says her startup offers more than 100 indoor hanami rooms that can be rented by the hour.

“We are receiving inquiries from guests who are worried about the coronavirus and considering other options,” she says.

Educated history

Sakura-themed advertisements and products inundate the market at this time of the year, with beermakers selling cans of brews with cherry blossom-inspired designs and confectionery makers introducing limited-time only sakura-flavored snacks and sweets.

Spring is also an emotionally charged season for the Japanese, coinciding with school graduations and considered a time for farewells and new encounters. The music industry has long capitalized on the symbolism. According to karaoke broadcaster Joysound operated by Xing Inc., there are a whopping 908 songs in its catalogue that includes the word sakura in the song title. The all time best-seller is “Sakura” by singer-songwriter Naotaro Moriyama, which has sold well over a million copies since its release in 2003.

Meguro River offers visitors a chance to view the blossoms at night. | GETTY IMAGES
Meguro River offers visitors a chance to view the blossoms at night. | GETTY IMAGES

Japan’s love affair with the plant dates back over a millenia to the Heian Period (794-1185), when aristocrats began praising the beauty of its blooms in poems and literature. Until then, plum blossoms were considered the epitome of elegance, likely due to the strong political and cultural influence China commanded over Japan before the island nation stopped sending official delegates to its giant neighbor in 894.

The practice of hanami, however, was limited to well-educated aristocrats and, later, among the samurai ranks. It almost certainly wasn’t the sometimes raucous booze-fueled parties of the 21st century. In 1598, warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi hosted an extravagant hanami at Daigoji temple in Kyoto inviting 1,300 guests, but it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1603-1868) that hanami was widely adopted by commoners.

The most cherished hanami spot was Kaneiji, a temple founded by a high priest named Tenkai and located in present-day Ueno Park. Tenkai transplanted cherry trees from Mount Yoshino in Nara Prefecture to his temple, but the grounds were considered too classy for ordinary folks to party in. To promote the culture more widely, Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun, planted sakura trees in areas such as Asakusa and Asukayama, places that are still popular hanami destinations.

Unlike today, when sakura are largely of the someiyoshino variety, the cherry trees viewed back during the Edo Period included a wide variety and people would typically spend a month visiting different locations depending on when the particular type of cherry tree bloomed.

That changed during the late Edo Period when the someiyoshino was artificially created in Somei Village, a district in the present-day neighborhood of Komagome that was famed for its skilled gardeners and planters who created numerous superior varieties. A hybrid said to be between oshima-zakura and edohigan, the someiyoshino is self-incompatible — meaning the trees can’t pollinate their own kind — and can only be propagated by grafting.

The moat surrounding the Imperial Palace is typically a prime spot to view blossoms. | GETTY IMAGES
The moat surrounding the Imperial Palace is typically a prime spot to view blossoms. | GETTY IMAGES

Since the varieties all trace their roots to a single tree and share identical DNA, someiyoshino bloom at the same time in a majestic haze of white and pale pink petals, one reason it has come to symbolize the season. The variety was promoted and rapidly planted across the nation, and currently accounts for 70 to 80 percent of all sakura found in Japan.

The variety has also made its way overseas. In 1912, Tokyo gifted 3,000 young cherry trees including 1,800 someiyoshino to Washington as a sign of goodwill. The trees are still celebrated at the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.

Komagome takes pride in its distinction as the birthplace of someiyoshino. There’s a street named Somei, as well as a bridge by the same name. Around 10 minutes on foot from JR Komagome Station is Tokyo Somei Onsen Sakura, a modern spa with hot-spring baths and, in April, the neighborhood hosts its annual Somei-Yoshino Sakura Festival — an event that was scrapped this year due to the coronavirus.

Toned-down festivities

Komagome isn’t the only area that has had to cancel or tone down hanami-related events this year. In early March, the Metropolitan Government urged Tokyoites to refrain from partying at all 82 public parks overseen by the city, leading to numerous festivities being sacked.

Ueno Park gave up hosting its annual sakura festival, which was slated to kick off March 20, with organizers canceling events and banning people from laying down picnic blankets by the cherry trees lining the main walkway. Lanterns will still be lit up at night to allow for some evening viewing, a spokeswoman for the Ueno Tourism Federation said. The 12-day Chiyoda Sakura Festival held on a pathway by the Chidorigafuchi moat is also not happening, while the photogenic sakura avenue alongside Meguro River won’t be illuminated at night.

These measures, however, may not prevent people from taking part in a centuries-old tradition. Yuta Konno, who operates a service that runs errands for customers, says that compared to last year, he is receiving roughly the same amount of inquiries from people interested in asking him to save coveted sakura viewing spots for ¥3,000 an hour, excluding taxes.

“I don’t sense that the coronavirus scare has dampened people’s appetite for hanami,” he says.

Since many popular viewing sites, including Ueno Park and Meguro River, are public parks and pathways that remain open, hanami fans can still take walks to enjoy the blossoms despite the lack of food stalls and lantern displays.

Visitors flock to Tokyo's Ueno Park to view cherry blossoms in March 2015. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Visitors flock to Tokyo’s Ueno Park to view cherry blossoms in March 2015. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Kimura, the sakura guardian, says his group decided against handing out maps and other guides to Ueno Park’s cherry trees this season. But for those visiting the park, he stressed that it has much more to offer besides the someiyoshino. “There are several rare varieties that can be hard to find elsewhere,” he says.

The original Komatsu-Otome variety of cherry tree still stands in the park, Kimura says, whose stems were used to reproduce the tree by grafting them onto rootstocks, typically those of the oshima-zakura or edohigan variety. Kimura’s favorite is the shidare-zakura (weeping cherry) towering over the entrance of the park, blooming a week or so earlier than the someiyoshino trees.

As part of his work as a sakura guardian, Kimura says he had been looking after 12 newly grafted cherry trees he kept in planters at his home. Last month, he and other members of the association, along with metropolitan officials, took them to a tree nursery at Mizumoto Park in Katsushika Ward, where they were planted.

“The trees will be nurtured for several years before being brought back to Ueno Park,” he says, adding that around three to five cherry trees in the park that are sick or growing too old are replaced each year with new ones.

Ueno’s cherry trees and hanami are traditions that need to be protected, Kimura says, so future generations can continue to appreciate their fleeting but fantastic beauty.

“The virus scare may see less people this year,” he says, “but I’m sure they will come back next year.”

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