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Saturday, March 31, 2012

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Measuring stick: Visitors gauge the buds on the benchmark "someiyoshino" cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine on Wednesday. The tree is designated by the government as the official reference point for Tokyo's cherry blossom season. YOSHIAKI MIURA

Cherry blossoms set to lift national mood


Staff writer

The nation was too stunned last year to partake in the national ritual of "hanami" cherry blossom viewing after the March 11 disasters left more than 18,000 dead or missing, but now people are in the mood.

The first cherry tree, or "sakura," blossomed in Kochi Prefecture last week and the light pink glitter will soon spread across the archipelago, giving the nation a much-needed uplift.

Last year, cherry blossoms were a poignant sight, highlighting the evanescent nature of the pink florets. There was a strong feeling throughout Japan of walking in lockstep with the disaster victims and a collective self-restraint set in, with many people forgoing their usual pleasant pursuits, including hanami.

Parks in Tokyo, where people often camp out overnight to secure the best spots, canceled cherry blossom-related events and put up signs saying "please refrain from having parties."

But this year, people are finding hope and renewal in the sakura.

"We would like to show that the spring comes even in Fukushima," said Hidekazu Onami of the Fukushima prefectural tourism department.

Last year, most sakura festivals were canceled due to the disasters and ensuing crisis at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. But this year, the prefecture has at least 15 major cherry blossom festivals scheduled for April.

Weather forecasters say the cherry trees will blossom around April 14 in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

Sakura have been spotted in various places around Tokyo, but the official blossom date is announced only when a special "someiyoshino," a variety of cherry tree, at Yasukuni Shrine comes into bloom. It is one of the government-designated benchmark cherry trees that set the blossom date for each region.

Looking at the average over the last 30 years, the Yasukuni tree typically reaches the blossom stage on March 26.

Analysts say this year's unusually cold winter helped the buds "wake up," but subsequent cold snaps have slowed the process. Weather forecasters have a tough job pinpointing the date, as they have to deal with fickle temperatures and other weather-related factors.

Weather Map, Weather News and the Japan Weather Association, the three major forecasters, predict the Yasukuni tree will bloom this weekend. The flowers are expected to reach their full beauty around next Friday.

"Compared with the last 20 years, sakura will arrive in Tokyo pretty late this year," said Miho Oda, a JWA forecaster.

Tokyo's Ueno Park, which boasts 1,200 cherry trees, is upbeat about receiving more visitors.

"We are trying to recoup the losses from last year. We hope to have 2.4 million visitors during the season, a 20 percent increase from the average," said Masahiro Kayano, secretary general of the Ueno Tourism Association.

Kayano said the sakura season is the busiest time of the year and most businesses saw a drop of as much as 70 percent last year. He is optimistic about this year because he expects the two giant pandas at Ueno Zoo and a new fountain in the park to draw more tourists.

Some businesses in Tokyo are already seeing upticks. Special packages offering rooms at the Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo with a view of cherry trees are selling at five times last year's pace.

The Crown Restaurant in the Hotel Grand Palace in Chiyoda Ward said it is fully booked for April. The restaurant, which overlooks cherry trees alongside the Imperial Palace, took a hit last year from the disasters but is expecting more than 1,500 customers during this sakura period.

"Some customers made reservations back in February. They are eager to make up for last year," said Hiroyuki Tanaka of the Hotel Grand Palace. The restaurant offers a sakura-themed buffet until April 8.

However, the fickle nature of cherry blossoms is clouding estimates for some businesses.

For Hamadaya, a cruise-boat company that offers tours on the Sumida River, spring is the busiest season. The company said customers make reservations based on the average blossom date of March 26.

"We are fully booked till April 8, but not much after that. Our business might not hold out," said Junko Matsumoto of Hamadaya, which saw dozens of cancellations in March and April last year.

Chinzanso, a wedding venue that has 82 cherry trees in its 66,000-sq.-meter garden, said it had to extend its sakura-related events due to this year's late blossoming. Whether this will help remains to be seen.

"Until people actually see cherry blossoms, they are on the fence about making plans. We are totally at the mercy of fickle sakura," said Chinzanso's Yoko Kitagawa.



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