A mild winter in many parts of Japan means the cherry blossoms are expected to arrive earlier than usual. By the time we hit April — the start of the fiscal year, the school term, and when new employees begin their first day on the job — the cherry blossoms are likely to be almost finished in the Kanto and Kansai regions.
For Kyoto in particular, that’s very bad news. COVID-19 couldn’t have arrived at a worse time for a city world renowned for its cherry blossoms. Local businesses know cherry blossom season and the autumn months are the two peak spending periods by foreign and Japanese visitors. Since late February, Kyoto, like elsewhere, has been forced to cancel events, large and small, including traditional spring events like the “Miyako Odori,” a series of cherry blossom dances performed by the city’s maiko and geiko (Kyoto’s geisha).
For the past five or six years, overtourism has been Kyoto’s main problem, with residents, foreign and Japanese, complaining loudly about hordes of foreign tourists in the streets spoiling their fair city. On the other hand, hotels and hostels have been popping up in Kyoto like mushrooms. A lot of people made, and continue to make, a ton of money off the tourist trade.
But now, “undertourism” is the concern. This spring, Kyoto is remarkably uncrowded. Hotels, which have faced accusations of price-gouging at this time of year in the past amid excessive demand, are struggling to fill their rooms. Those who do go to Kyoto now can find rooms at some upscale establishments that are as cheap as a youth hostel.
The problem is, what do you do after you arrive? Museums like the Kyoto National Museum are currently closed due to COVID-19 concerns. Most businesses were still open as of this writing, but the possibility remains they could decide to close their doors or reduce their hours of operation.
You can still enjoy the cherry blossoms, but you may be on your feet while doing so if you go to one of the more well-known viewing spots. COVID-19 precautions mean traditional cherry blossom parties — sitting for hours on blue plastic sheets among hordes of people while sipping Kyoto sake and belting out popular karaoke tunes as recommend by Karaoke Fan magazine — will probably be discouraged if not forbidden.
Of course, the counterargument is: With fewer tourists, what better time to enjoy Kyoto? Especially if you are not worried about COVID-19. That’s an argument Kyoto itself is making in the form of signs around the Arashiyama district promoting the new, suddenly less crowded city.
The problem with that is the same problem anyone with vacation plans faces. Namely, what happens if, upon arrival at the airport for the journey home, you suddenly learn that your government has ordered everyone coming in from Japan to go into quarantine for two weeks. Or what happens if a connecting flight to Japan takes you through a third country that has been put on your home country’s quarantine list while you were here?
As the massive volume of travel cancellations worldwide demonstrates, however people feel about how dangerous the virus might be, they aren’t about to risk getting stuck overseas if the end result of their journey may be a quarantine back home due to the outbreak.
Still, amid the crisis there could be a silver lining for Kyoto and Japan as a whole. Those involved with tourism should stop fretting about this cherry blossom season and use the COVID-19 experience to enact better, more intelligent and sustainable, long-term local tourist policies that prevent undertourism as well as overtourism.
View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.
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