Seasons turn, spring comes and cherry blossoms bloom, even amid a novel coronavirus pandemic.
But with Tokyo’s state of emergency lifted just ahead of full bloom, concerns are rising that infections will rise with more people going out for their annual hanami outing — watching the cherry blossoms and eating and drinking under the trees.
Visiting two of Tokyo’s key spots for cherry blossom viewing — Ueno Park and along the Meguro River, both of which are clamping down on parties this year — The Japan Times asked visitors for their views on what can be done to enjoy the blossoms safely.
Strolling through Ueno Park, a 43-year-old man, who only gave his first name, Koji, noticed a significant decrease in the number of people coming to see the cherry blossoms from when he came two years ago before the pandemic.
“Even taking into account that today was a weekday, it felt like there were fewer people here,” he said.
Koji, who was taking a walk with a friend, felt it was necessary for the park operators to take precautions, including restricting parties during the season.
“Hanami may become different in the future, but as long as we keep walking while watching the flowers, and wear masks when dining out, we can safely have hanami from now on,” he said.
A woman in her 50s from Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward said the cherry blossoms reminded her that some things don’t change regardless of the ongoing pandemic.
“Spring comes regardless of the pandemic, and cherry blossoms are still beautiful,” said the woman, who came to the park as she had the morning off from work.
She was surprised at the number of people coming to see the cherry blossoms, overhearing many foreign languages among the conversations of the visitors.
“It will take five to 10 years until we can get back to holding traditional cherry blossom parties like before,” she said, adding that it won’t be until decades later that history proves what infection measures were appropriate.
‘Save memories in cameras’
For an 18-year-old Chinese exchange student in Taito Ward, viewing the cherry blossoms was one of the iconic traditions he had seen in Japanese anime that he was looking forward before heading to Japan.
“I am disappointed about restrictions at parks since I wanted to attend cherry blossom parties like the ones in anime,” he said. “It’s cumbersome that we all have to wear masks, but what we can do this year is to take photos of cherry blossom trees and save memories in cameras.”
He was hopeful that things would go back to what they were before the pandemic.
“I will be in Japan next spring as well, so I hope that the situation improves enough so that I will be able to do hanami and eat food with friends without wearing masks,” he said.
One young woman taking a stroll at Ueno Park with her boyfriend saw the positive side of the new normal for hanami. Unlike the traditional partying under the trees, it made one appreciate the cherry blossoms more, she said.
Though her hanami date may not have been what she had expected before the spread of COVID-19, she accepted that reality.
However, she was also worried that the coronavirus would spread with the number of people gathered, even though people were only taking a stroll through the park.
“Restrictions on cherry blossom parties cannot be helped, since the times are like this,” she said. “But since it is right after the state of emergency was lifted, I am concerned that the number of cases may increase after this hanami rush.”
‘A good opportunity’
For an 80-year-old woman and her daughter from Shinagawa Ward, walking along the Meguro River when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom is something of an annual tradition.
“When I’m at home, I just lie down and watch TV,” the mother said, adding that the walk served as a good exercise for her.
She had been taking ballroom dancing classes, but some of them were canceled due to COVID-19, since the lessons involved many people gathering in a small room.
“Due to the pandemic, my mother has fewer chances to go out, and her legs get weaker because of that,” said the daughter. “So a hanami walk is a good opportunity for her as well. I have to get her out when it’s warm and sunny so that she won’t be alone at home.”
‘Rethink the old ways’
With a small bento box and a cup of tea in their hands, an older couple were having a small cherry blossom party of their own on a tiny bench alongside the river.
Recalling the days when lively hanami parties were a custom, the wife, in her 70s, saw the pandemic as something of a wake-up call.
“Hanami parties back then — ones in Ueno Park with blue tarps all over the place — may be a chaotic tradition, and it was so stinky with all the alcohol and everything,” she said. “In that sense, this might be a good chance for us to rethink the old ways.”
Despite the health crisis, she said she still believes that the tradition of loud hanami parties would survive, albeit on a smaller scale.
“With all the restrictions, it’s a bit sad if we think back on the old days, but maybe this is for the better,” she said. “Hanami will never disappear, but we have to deal with the pandemic while being aware of what’s safe and what’s not for everyone.”
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