Japan's cherry blossoms fascinate foreign tourists

OSAKA (The Japan News/ANN) - Japan's hanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) tradition during spring has attracted tourists to visit the country.

The someiyoshino cherry trees are blooming in Osaka, which means the hanami season is upon us. Cherry blossom viewing is also becoming popular with foreign tourists, who are visiting Japan in record numbers. Recently, some have come not just to gaze at the flowers, but to enjoy Japanese-style hanami parties under the trees. Travel agencies and local governments with such tourist spots are scrambling to keep up with demand.

Some recent posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, were “Japanese people are singing and eating bento meals. It looks fun,” and “Cherry blossoms at night are beautiful.”

Trend Express, a Tokyo-based company that analyses online word-of-mouth information from overseas, found 18,983 Weibo posts last month that included words like “Japan,” “cherry tree” and “hanami,” more than double from a year earlier.

Posts describing plans to visit Japan for cherry blossom viewing nearly tripled to 3,394 posts on a year-on-year basis, the company said.

A record 19.73 million foreign tourists came to Japan last year, according to the National Tourism Organisation.

Viewing events
Hanami appears to be a draw in April. The number of visitors in April last year increased by more than 40 per cent from a year earlier to 1.76 million. Many of them were Chinese. Chinese people do not hold Japanese-style hanami parties, so many Chinese tourists are said to be curious about the traditions here.

Travel agencies and tourist spots are busy with meeting the increasing hanami demands.

Freeplus Inc., an Osaka travel agency that serves foreign tourists, is offering tours to famous cherry blossom spots, such as Osaka Castle Park in the city’s Chuo Ward. The tours are 80 per cent booked through mid-April, the company said.

A JTB Corp. information desk for foreign tourists in an Osaka department store offers maps with forecasts of when the cherry trees will bloom.

Ueno Park in Tokyo had 2.34 million visitors during cherry blossom season last year, many of them from abroad.

“Visitors from overseas might make up more than half of the total this season,” a park official in charge of the matter said.

Ueno’s cherry trees have yet to fully bloom, but the park is planning a variety of events aimed at foreign visitors, such as opportunities to toss shuriken throwing stars or wear traditional Japanese clothes.

Aiming to attract foreign tourists who come for hanami, the Daimaru department store in Osaka’s Umeda district is giving out bags and umbrellas to customers who shop with a major Chinese credit card. Tax-exempt sales in April last year surpassed those during Chinese New Year in February 2015, a store official said.

“We have high hopes for this year’s hanami sales offensive, too,” the official said.

Trouble brewing?
With more people comes a greater possibility of problems.

Maruyama Park in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, has been featured in magazines from China and Taiwan since about two years ago. This and other publicity has led to an increase in foreign tourists who come to see the cherry blossoms.

The park has posted signs in Chinese, Korean and English with warnings such as, “Don’t break off the cherry tree branches” and “Take your garbage with you.”

There have been no reports of trouble so far, but “just in case,” a park official said.

Prime blooms in early April
While cherry trees are already blooming in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and other parts of the Kansai region, the blossoms are expected to be in full bloom in early April in many other areas.

According to local meteorological observatories nationwide, cherry trees began blooming on March 22 in Wakayama and on March 23 in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.

Warm temperatures above 20 deg C are expected in many places for several days around Tuesday, which should cause trees to blossom quickly.

Cooler temperatures arrived mid-last week.

“Thanks to the cold, flowers are opening more slowly. We may be able to enjoy [the cherry blossoms] for a bit longer this season,” a weather official said.