We are revisiting some past content on the science, economics and culture of cherry blossom season. Most importantly, we talk about some of the best spots to check them out in the Tokyo and Osaka areas.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna 00:08

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times. I'm Shaun McKenna. When it comes to cherry blossom, or, “sakura,” season in Japan, timing is everything. On Saturday, Kochi became the first prefecture in the country to see the blossoms. They were on a Somei Yoshino cherry tree at Kochi Castle. No such luck in Tokyo, where it was cold and rainy. Today we're going to revisit some stories about Japan's love of sakura and we're going to start with my colleagues, Alissa I. Smith and Thu-Huong Ha discussing this obsession with figuring out when the blossoms are going to bloom, a feat that's getting more difficult due to climate change.

Alyssa Smith 00:32

Hey, Thu.

Thu-Huong Ha 00:54

Hey Alyssa.

Alyssa Smith 0:54

The last time we were on the pod together, we talked about cultural trends and highlights in 2022. You also recently spoke to Jason about the evolution of Yayoi Kusama. Now, you're taking a little detour and you've written a piece about sakura forecasting. What piqued your interest in this subject?

Thu-Huong Ha 01:11

Well, first of all, great point, Alyssa. I am not a science reporter. I'm not here in the capacity of being a climate change expert. But I have always been interested since I moved to Japan in the sakura forecast, because I think it is kind of a unique part of culture here. And I was really curious, like, you know, I would see these lists of like, this park is 40% full but the park next to it is 60% full, and I was like “Who is recording this?” Is it just like a guy? But you know, how I pictured was a guy with white gloves, and a magnifying glass every day going out and checking the difference in the diameter of these flowers.

Alyssa Smith 01:48

I imagined it's a pretty big responsibility to sort of kick off the party season for all of Japan?

Thu-Huong Ha 01:55

Yes, I actually got to witness a sakura press conference!

Alyssa Smith 01:59

Was it what you imagined it would be?

Thu-Huong Ha 02:02

Um, yeah, in that I was looking at a wall of shoulders.

Alyssa Smith 02:05

You start your piece standing in front of a very special tree in Tokyo. And I didn't know about the existence of this tree. So can you give us a little bit more information about why this tree is so special?

Thu-Huong Ha 02:17

Yes, there is a tree — actually very close to where we're sitting right now in Tokyo at Yasukuni Shrine. It is a sakura tree that has been designated by the government as the sample tree that is used for the prefecture of Tokyo. So the Japan Meteorological Agency sets the standard for observing sakura trees, obviously. And there's a list of 58 of these trees in the country, all across the country. And there are rules about the flowering of these trees. So on the day that I went, there was somebody from the agency, a meteorologist...

Alyssa Smith 02:50

Was he wearing white gloves?

Thu-Huong Ha 02:52

Heh... I don't think so. But he was very nervous, because he's not a, you know, he's not a public speaker. He probably just looks at charts all day. But it was his job that day. It's what he's looking for, in order to declare the first day like the opening of the trees is for five to six flowers to be open on the tree and they have to be on the branches — not on the trunk and not on the roots.

Alyssa Smith 03:13

I see. Can you explain a little bit of the science behind the sakura blossoming? For example, what are the main factors in when they bloom and how they bloom?

Thu-Huong Ha 03:21

Sure. So the basic biorhythm is that in summer, the trees form the flower buds. In late fall and early winter, they go into dormancy. At some point in deep winter, they wake up from the dormancy, and then when spring comes they flower. That's the basic flow.

Alyssa Smith 03:35

So it sounds like cold is just as important as warmth to these trees.

Thu-Huong Ha 03:41

Yeah, exactly. So, you know, we do think of the warmth of spring as the thing that wakes up the buds and causes them to flower. But just as important is the cold — the cold temperatures in winter that actually signal to the tree that they need to wake up from dormancy.

Alyssa Smith 03:55

Now, with climate change making the weather more unpredictable, it's also becoming difficult to forecast when the sakura will bloom, right? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Thu-Huong Ha 04:05

Yeah, exactly. So there's two main ways in which the bloom is being affected by climate change. So they're both related to temperature. So the first is that the flowering dates will get earlier and they have been getting earlier. This year's flowering date was the earliest on record — along with 2021 and 2020 — going back to when the record started in the 1950s. And also what researchers have found is that if the winter in places like Kyushu, which is the warmest part of Japan, just like doesn't get cold enough, you might see some kind of half-bloom trees like looking kind of weird, or, in the worst case scenario, they might not bloom at all.

Alyssa Smith 04:38

Right. And I'm sure that's going to be very heartbreaking for the people in Kyushu who won't be able to party under the beautiful sakura blossoms.

Thu-Huong Ha 04:46

They'll just be taking selfies with bare trees. They won't know what to do. They won't know what day it is.

Alyssa Smith 04:52

Some people may not know this, but one of the reasons the sakura tend to bloom all at the same time is because over 90% of the cherry trees planted in Japan are clones. They're not just the same species. They're clones of the same tree. Right?

Thu-Huong Ha 05:04

That's right. That's the Somei Yoshino variety. And actually, the rules I mentioned earlier set by the meteorological agency dictate that for the most part, they only use this variety to do the observations because the trees are so consistent genetically. So right, they were actually all bred, allegedly, by the same gardener during the Edo Period. And then they were spread all over Japan. But there's actually hundreds of different varieties of cherry trees, naturally in Japan, with different colors to their petals, you know, when they bloom and for how long. And there's actually a sakura expert named Hideaki Tanaka out in Ibaraki Prefecture who's growing 1,000 sample trees of 400 different varieties and he's trying to convince local governments to plant other species.

Alyssa Smith 05:50

Why would they want to do that?

Thu-Huong Ha 05:51

Well, aside from you know, a more diverse array of beauty. There are some problems with the Somei Yoshino strain. So, they are hard to prune from what I understand and so they are left vulnerable to infection called witch's broom that can harm trees. And because this is the vast majority of the cherry trees, the disease can spread quickly from tree to tree. So I think the thinking is that if there's more diversity than there's more resilience.

Alyssa Smith 06:19

And with more resilience ...

Thu-Huong Ha 06:21

There's more partying!


Shaun McKenna 06:32

So, sakura forecasters are finding it increasingly difficult to peg down when people can plan their hanami drinking parties under a proper blanket of pink blossoms — and, as it turns out, those parties are big for business. My colleague Jason Jenkins spoke to reporter Kathleen Benoza about the financial boost sakura season provides for beer companies, clothing manufacturers and places like Starbucks.

Jason Jenkins 06:56

Welcome, Kathleen.

Kathleen Benoza 06:57

Hey, Jason. Happy to be here.

Jason Jenkins 06:58

Last week you wrote a piece called “Japan's economy to bloom as hanami season kicks off.” And hanami being the Japanese word for blossom viewing, sort of a shorthand for the drinking parties and picnics that people have under the blossoming trees. In your article, focused on how hanami season generates so much money around the country, what kind of money are we talking about here?

Kathleen Benoza 07:19

Well, for the piece, I talked to Katsuhiro Miyamoto.

He's a professor emeritus at Kansai University. And he has put out figures on how the cherry blossom season affects the Japanese economy.

Jason Jenkins 07:32

So he must be a hanami fan himself.

Kathleen Benoza 07:36

Oh, yeah. Big time. He was thrilled to talk about it, actually. And just for hanami season, he reported that it had a positive economic impact of around ¥2.6 billion.

Jason Jenkins 07:46

OK, so that's about $1.5 billion U.S. at the time of recording, I think.

Kathleen Benoza 07:51

Oh, yeah. But we got to remember last year, hanami wasn't really a thing because of COVID. And his estimates this year, they’re triple that: over ¥600 billion now that the pandemic has calmed down a bit. But he still says that that's not as much as pre pandemic levels.

Jason Jenkins 08:07

So help me unpack these billions. Where's this money going? And who's benefiting?

Kathleen Benoza 08:12

Well, it's mostly going to the tourism industry. But we really have to consider pre-pandemic levels here. This year, they're predicting about a total of 2.3 million foreign tourists during hanami season. But before COVID, we had around that many people coming from China and South Korea alone.

Jason Jenkins 08:29

Right! And that doesn't even count the domestic tourists who traveled to different parts of the country. I mean, the locals are the biggest hanami fans themselves, aren't they? And now that COVID has been downgraded a lot more people restart their picnics and hanami parties.

Kathleen Benoza 08:42

Oh, yeah, absolutely. So you can kind of imagine that the tourism-related industries, they'd be doing really well with tourists and locals. But you know, I found it really interesting that in Miyamoto’s 2022 study, about 57% of respondents said they didn't even want to drink or eat at their picnics. And only 11% said they wanted to drink alcohol.

Jason Jenkins 09:03

Does this have to do with a pandemic or mask wearing or anything like that?

Kathleen Benoza 09:08

Oh, yeah, exactly. Professor Miyamoto actually talked to me about how people felt like this strong form of social pressure to just wear the masks and follow all these different pandemic-related guidelines. And people were also told not to drink or eat under the trees and to refrain from stopping under the trees.

Jason Jenkins 09:27

So what other sectors of the economy benefit from the cherry blossom season?

Kathleen Benoza 09:31

Well, a lot of brand names try to leverage their sales with the cherry blossom season.

Jason Jenkins 09:35

Of course. I know the pink Kit Kats well...

Kathleen Benoza 09:39

Yeah, and have you seen those Starbucks limited edition frappuccinos? They're everywhere. And it's really popular here in Japan. Coca-Cola and Asahi even changed their packaging to include pink flowers, the sakura petals. And companies big and small, they try to get in on the action by staging the sales and special seasonal discounts.

Jason Jenkins 09:59

Oh, right. Yeah, something similar happens in the West. In Canada, in the States, and I'm sure elsewhere. And I guess here in Japan, it's, you know, spring and hanami season.

Kathleen Benoza 10:08

You get it. But you grew up in the U.S., right, Jason?

Jason Jenkins 10:12

I did.

Kathleen Benoza 10:13

When did the school year begin for you there?

Jason Jenkins 10:15

Usually in September. In the fall, usually.

Kathleen Benoza 10:18

OK, that's completely different here in Japan. Since here, the school year begins and ends in spring. So it begins in April and then ends in March. So the cherry blossoms have really come to symbolize new beginnings like that.

Jason Jenkins 10:31

Of course, and so people are buying school supplies, and they're buying new clothes, and...

Kathleen Benoza 10:36

Oh, yeah, and it's not just schools. The end of the financial year is around springtime. So that's when people start new jobs. They go into new companies and companies transfer their employees to different places in Japan. So people are moving around as well.

Jason Jenkins 10:50

Ah, so more clothes sold, more moving companies and furniture and appliances and suits for work.

Kathleen Benoza 10:56

Yeah, you get the idea. This is all part of what's called shinseikatsu here in Japan.

Jason Jenkins 11:02

Oh yeah, tell us a little more about shinseikatsu.

Kathleen Benoza 11:03

Shinseikatsu basically translates to “new lifestyle.” And like professor Miyamoto says, hanami season coincides with major life decisions among Japanese people.

Jason Jenkins 11:13

Which is also a time when you buy lots of new stuff. And we've talked about moving and clothes and school supplies, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a spike in photo equipment as well.

Kathleen Benoza 11:23

Oh, you're talking about all those people in the parks waiting to capture like this one branch of cherry blossom trees.

Jason Jenkins 11:29

That's right, every park has to have at least a half a dozen middle-aged men with a $1,000 camera lens to get their best shot of the hanami.

Kathleen Benoza 11:39

Oh, yeah. But you know, another industry that usually does well during the season are meetups and matchmaking services.

Jason Jenkins 11:46

Matchmaking services?

Kathleen Benoza 11:48

Well, no, they're not really matchmaking services in like the old-school sense. But there are parties for singles like social gatherings during hanami season. And I also spoke to this meetup organizer, and he said that despite all these online dating apps, people still want to get to know each other in person. And hanami is the perfect season to do it.

Jason Jenkins 12:07

Oh, that's so sweet. So romance really is in the air.

Kathleen Benoza 12:11

And billions and billions of yen.


News clip James A. FitzPatrick (From “The Voice of the Globe” 1932) 12:23

There is a season of the year in which every country puts on its most beautiful raiment. In Japan, it is in cherry blossom time. This particular season has a vital effect upon the native people, who bask in the beauties of spring as they walk through the numerous parks where the cherry trees bloom and luxuriant profusion...

Shaun McKenna 12:43

In an interview with The Japan Times’ 20 Questions section, dendrologist Toshio Katsuki, dendrology being the study of trees, points out that China actually has more cherry blossom species than Japan, but that Japan has its own cultural interpretations of them. For our final segment today, Jason, Thu and Alyssa are back discussing the cultural significance of sakura and the limited amount of time they’re in bloom, and, most importantly, how you can get in on some hanami action yourself.

Thu-Huong Ha 13:12

There's a poem that I learned about in Japanese class that I think about a lot from the ninth century by a waka poet, Ariwara no Narihira. I'm not going to butcher the poem. But the rough translation is “If there were no cherry blossoms in this world, my spring heart would be calm.” And I think about that a lot. Because I just think it's a very stressful time of year. There's so much pressure to enjoy this like very, very, very fleeting beauty..

Alyssa Smith 13:36

Yeah, I can see that expectations are high. It also usually rains around this time, right? When you actually do get a moment to enjoy the flowers. You know, it's sort of like a stolen moment. Thu-Huong Ha 13:49

I almost think of it as the Olympics of FOMO.

Jason Jenkins 13:52

Olympics of FOMO. What do you mean?

Thu-Huong Ha 13:53

It's just like a world championship of catching it at the right exact moment. And if you don't, you have to wait another year.

Jason Jenkins 13:59

That's right. And you'll even find in you know, I mean, buttoned-down corporate Japan, you'll find people popping out for cocktails under the trees at lunchtime, if that's the day that the weather is good. And you have to take advantage of it while it's happening. And I also wanted to mention how sakura trees have been used for diplomatic purposes, as well. Alyssa, tell us what happened in 1912.

Alyssa Smith 14:25

Right, so this is just over 100 years ago, in 1912, the mayor of Tokyo gifted sakura trees to Washington, D.C., and now they've become this iconic part of the U.S. Capitol.

Jason Jenkins 14:36

Yes, some people have called this “sakura diplomacy.” And I think the biggest example is Washington, D.C. But you would find other examples of this and other places, China, the U.K. and elsewhere.

Thu-Huong Ha 14:47

That was actually my first experience of sakura. I haven't lived in Japan that long. I haven't actually lived through a proper hanami season in Japan yet. But when I was a kid, my parents were super into it and my dad would check the paper every day. And then if it was the time we would jump in the car on Friday afternoon. Go down to DC and spend the weekend there, you know, in the ’90s taking pictures of us with the sakura. What about you, Alyssa?

Alyssa Smith 15:12

Well for me I grew up in Tokyo and every spring, I’d go to Arisugawa Park after school with friends and we’d picnic there. Now as an adult, I make it a point to throw a big party in Yoyogi Park and bring friends from different social circles together, I’ll see who gets along, what cliques. What about you, Jason?

Jason Jenkins 15:36

Yeah, yeah. It's probably pretty clear that I am a hanami fan and have been for quite a while. It started for me in 2001: I was the lowest-ranking, newest employee in a company and for the corporate hanami party, they wanted to get someone to go save space, you know, to get up really early and, you know, put out some tarps to save a spot for everybody to come to after work. They usually pick the lowest rung and that was me.

Alyssa Smith 16:07

Yeah, it's pretty normal Japanese companies to get the newbies to go out there early in the morning.

Thu-Huong Ha 16:15

Glad I missed that phase.

Alyssa Smith 16:16

It's like light hazing.

Thu-Huong Ha 16:17

Like pink hazing.

Jason Jenkins 16:18

Yep, I was that newbie. But the funny thing was, I loved it. I got into it. I'm not a morning person at all. But after that first year, I volunteered to do it the next year, and the year after that. And when I left the company, I started throwing Hanami parties of my own. It just became the best week of the year for me.

Alyssa Smith 16:35

You know, one of the highlights of the hanami season for me is the community aspect of it. So let's talk about the hanami itself and what a typical hanami party looks like.

Jason Jenkins 16:44

I guess the stereotypical hanami party is just a glorified picnic really. You know, people put out some food and drink and sit under the trees and eat, drink and enjoy each other's company. But I know a lot of people enjoy hanami season simply by walking on paths that are lined with sakura trees. I like that too.

Alyssa Smith 17:04

Yeah, I am a big fan of the walking type of hanami. Especially at night in Tokyo, there are a lot of places where the trees are lit up with lanterns and it’s really beautiful.

Thu-Huong Ha 17:13

So there must be some places that are better than others. Where do you guys like to go?

Jason Jenkins 17:17

Yeah, we should get into some hanami spot recommendations. But I do think it's worth mentioning that, you know, out of the major hanami spots, those you know, in big cities anyway, they tend to each have their own sort of unique atmosphere. How would I put it? This isn't the best analogy, but think of it like dining or nightlife. There may be a dozen different cafes or bars or restaurants or nightclubs. But a lot of them will attract a certain kind of clientele or they have a certain mood or vibe to the ambiance as it were, you know, I think hanami spots can be like that sometimes. Some of them feel like someone's backyard. Another one feels like a crazy music festival or another one feels like sort of a manicured garden. But Alyssa, why don't you start us off in Tokyo? You're in the capital, tell us where to go.

Alyssa Smith 18:07

Sure. So two of the most popular hanami spots in Tokyo, I'd say, are Ueno Park and also Yoyogi Park. You know, both of these places, they draw huge crowds and so there's competition going on for prime locations underneath the sakura trees but there's definitely a party aspect to it as well. You know, people are jumping from party to party and meeting up with friends that maybe they didn't expect to see. So that's a positive aspect of going to these more popular, crowded locations. There's also Inokashira Park out by Kichijoji. If you're looking for something a little more subdued, I'd recommend Shinjuku Gyoen. You do have to pay to get in. They also close early, I think maybe around like 4 or 5 p.m. And I think they don't allow you to bring alcohol. So you know, it's a little more tame, but...

Thu-Huong Ha 18:56


Alyssa Smith 18:58

Civilized ... yeah, that might be the right word. But if you're, you know, if you're wanting to go to really bask in the beauty of the sakura trees, I think Shinjuku Gyoen is the right place to go.

Jason Jenkins 19:09

Another good thing about Shinjuku Gyoen is that they have some of the sakura species that bloom later than the Somei Yoshino variety. They're called yaezakura trees, and Shinjuku Gyoen has some of those. So if you missed the first round of blooming, you can possibly hit this spot later. OK, so you've listed up some of the sit-down, picnic-type hanami spots. Give us a couple of the walking options.

Alyssa Smith 19:39

Well, my favorite spot for just a night walk is along the river in Nakameguro. They light up lanterns along the way. And sometimes they have stalls where you can buy drinks and stuff like that. So there's kind of like a summer festival vibe going on as well. There's also the perimeter of the moat around the Imperial Palace. There's also the Aoyama Cemetery and the Yanaka area near Nippori Station. Those two places are also great for a stroll.

Thu-Huong Ha 20:05

I want to go there.

Jason Jenkins 20:06

Yeah, I love the Yanaka area as well.

Thu-Huong Ha 20:08

What about Kansai?

Jason Jenkins 20:10

In Kansai. Yeah, there are definitely a wealth of options here. In Osaka one of my favorite spots is Kema Sakuranomiya Park. It's along the river and there are hundreds of trees and then if you walk about 20 minutes south on the west side of the river, there's the Mint Bureau and the Mint Museum. Now this doesn't sound like a place you would see lots of sakura trees. And in truth, they only have like 300 I think? But, but they have over 100 different species. One challenge for this is you have to reserve ahead of time. That's one of the reasons I haven't seen it yet, but I'm planning to go this year. Now in Kyoto, obviously, one of the most popular spots is Maruyamakoen or Maruyama Park. It's in the Yasaka Shrine complex. And it's a great spot for some dinner or a snack. There's lots of stalls and tables set up. But I've heard the Kyoto Botanical Gardens are quite good as well. My favorite in Kyoto is probably walking the Philosopher's Path, that's a walk-through type. But you know, it's been three years with no hanami. So I bet it's going to be crowded, so I may skip it this year. Now, if I had a hanami bucket list, I would definitely go to Mount Yoshino in Nara at some point. This is an entire mountain covered in sakura trees. I think it's like 30,000 and, you know, hundreds of different species. I mean, this is the kind of place that you would, you know, read in ancient poems or see in ancient paintings, but I do know in Nara that a lot of people like to go to Nara Park where the deer are. But I would like to warn you that if you try to have a picnic here, you will have some uninvited, four-legged guests and they will take your food.

Thu-Huong Ha 21:57

Any tips for a newbie?

Alyssa Smith 21:58

Right, I think after years of experience, I have a lot of tips.

Thu-Huong Ha 22:04

Please. Teach me.

Alyssa Smith 22:05

So, you know along with your typical picnic supplies like food, drinks and some kind of something to cover the ground like a tarp or a blanket, I think you should make sure to pack extra napkins because there are definitely going to be spills.

Jason Jenkins 22:20

Napkins? We bring towels because there's always some big spills. I mean, not huge towels. But you know, the little hand towels you get for sports and at hot springs and places like that. You know, because this is Japan, you know, people are taking their shoes off to step onto your ground cloth, your tarp or whatever. And so if there's a lot of spills, you get, you know, wet sticky socks. That's no fun.

Alyssa Smith 22:41

Not fun at all. Also, remember to pack a small speaker for some tunes.

Thu-Huong Ha 22:46

I've heard people bring full on karaoke machines. Is that true?

Alyssa Smith 22:50

I have seen that. Another pro tip: I try to find a location that's somewhat close to a public bathroom. Definitely not right beside, but near enough that you can walk there drunkenly and make your way back to your friend.

Thu-Huong Ha 23:04

It's gonna be an issue for me.

Alyssa Smith 23:08

You should expect lines. All of these tips are important to keep in mind. But I think the most important thing to remember is to keep these hanami parties fairly casual. You know, you don't need a set start time, a set end time, people are going to be coming and going jumping from one party to the next to talk to friends or just meet new people. So you know to keep it sort of light-hearted and open is the way to go.

Jason Jenkins 23:31

And with that, it's time for us to wrap up. See you under the trees?

Alyssa I. Smith 23:35

Let's do it.

Thu-Huong Ha 23:36

See you there.


Shaun McKenna 23:40

There you have it, some excellent tips for your own hanami. I’m now with Deep Dive producer Dave Cortez, how’s the weather in Tokyo looking this week?

Dave Cortez 23:48

Well Shaun, there's rain in the forecast for a few days, but hopefully things clear up by the weekend.

Shaun McKenna 23:53

I meant it at the top when I said timing was everything when it comes to cherry blossoms. If you're flying in from overseas for them, sometimes it can be the biggest gamble as to whether or not you're going to actually see the country in its full sakura splendor. And if you do well, let's just say your socials will be blowing up with blossoms for weeks.

Dave Cortez 24:12

Yeah, I mean, even if you're not coming from overseas, I think people living here can relate to the idea of trying to get that hanami party on the weekend and then the forecast is rainy. So, yeah, we're all gambling.

Shaun McKenna 24:24

It's truly a wonderful time.

Dave Cortez 24:25

As was, Shaun, our trip to Okinawa. We went to the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology to interview some of their scientists. Everyone was extremely hospitable and we look forward to bringing you some stories from the south in the future.

Shaun McKenna 24:39

Look, before we go. I also just wanted to mention that there have been some really good stories at japantimes.co.jp. Jason Cosgrove, our sports writer, went from writing about Shohei Ohtani’s marriage to a betting scandal involving his interpreter. Our new reporter, Francis Tang, wrote about the prevalence of a new buzzword, “moshitora” ... Dave, can you guess what that means?

Dave Cortez 25:01

I actually know what that means! It means, “what if Trump?” And in some parts, it's actually evolved to the word “hobotora,” which means “it's pretty certain that it's gonna be Trump, guys.” So it's not a literal translation, but yeah, that's happening out there.

Shaun McKenna 25:16

Yeah, check out Francis’ piece, Jason's coverage and a slew of timely cherry blossom-related language pieces and recipes at The Japan Times online. We will continue to be on a bit of a break over the next few weeks, but I'd like to encourage everyone to take a look at our back catalog of Deep Dive episodes if you haven't checked them out yet. Or hey, just get out and enjoy the weather before we head into another sweltering hot summer. Deep Dive is produced by Dave here. Our outgoing song is by Oscar Boyd and our theme music is by the Japanese musician LLLL. I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.