Japan's Cherry Blossom
The Quiet Cherry Blossom - Japan
In the wake of the mass earthquake on 11th March 2011 and the subsequent tsunami, Japan has become a no go zone. This is such a shame. I love the country, the culture, and the people and, during this time of year, it is at its most beautiful. Why? Because it’s Hanami the cherry blossom festival season and the trees are awash with pinks and creams, lining the streets and sprinkling passersby with petals. Families are holding picnics in Aoyama cemetery to recognise their ancestors in a season that celebrates rebirth and regeneration. The cemeteries do not represent death to the Japanese but the celebration of lives gone by. Small music festivals are held under the cherry blossoms at night in various parks around Tokyo. It puts a new meaning to the term ‘music under the stars’ and is a unique and magical experience.
But this year, few visitors will be witnessing Hanami. I spoke to Kylie Clark from the Japan National Tourism Organisation in the UK and asked about the current status and what’s next for tourism in the country:
“..it is safe to travel to Tokyo and all other parts of Japan,except the areas north east of Tokyo most directly affected... The earthquake and tsunami struck just before the start of Japan’s cherry blossom season, the busiest time of year for Japan’s tourism industry. Between 11th and 31st March visitors to Tokyo dropped by 75% and to Osaka by 50%. Thousands of people in the areas unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami rely on tourism for their livelihoods, so it is very important that tourism to Japan continues. April and May are beautiful times to visit Japan, with the cherry blossom currently in full-bloom in Tokyo and Kyoto. So as you contemplate plans for future holidays, please consider Japan. It’s an incredible destination and it continues to warmly welcome visitors just as it did before this terrible tragedy. “
Kylie’s right about the warm welcome. I have travelled to Japan many times (my family lived on and off in Tokyo for 5 years) and what always struck me was the respect that people held for ‘Gaijin’, non Japanese people. On one of my trips, I visited a traditional Japanese Ryokan in Kyoto (which is one of the areas that it is currently safe to travel to). This was a third generation family run inn, and one of the most renowned in Kyoto. Even with the language barrier (I was lucky to travel with a friend who spoke fluent Japanese), I have never experienced such hospitality anywhere. I have mild cerebral palsy, and find it hard to maneuver on certain landscapes or indeed in shoes that don’t hold my left foot in place. As most people are aware, when you enter a dwelling in Japan it is polite to take off your shoes, and quite often you are offered slippers in return. Without a word and in about 5 seconds flat, my hostess gauged that I was unable to wear them, and allowed me to walk through the house barefoot which is usually a big insult to the proprietor.
After being taken to our very beautiful room to settle in, I was asked if I would like a bath before dinner (a 7 course banquet to be exact!). This was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. The bath was drawn for me, and the water came from the local hot springs nearby. A huge square wooden tub was filled almost to the top, and I sat in the hot water up to my neck. Soap is not used as you wash in a shower before entering the tub, so as not to penetrate the ancient wood with your dirt and grime. I almost fell asleep.
Dinner was served to us afterwards; each seasonal course was lovingly planned and presented. I’ve never seen a drunk Japanese woman as it is thought unseemly and uncontrolled, but I’m afraid the plum wine proved a tad bit too moreish for us and the giggles beset us. After about the third serving, our hostess smiled at us, bowed, and 5 minutes later bought us a tea pot full of the delicious drink, and a bucket full of ice. I didn’t know whether to be mortified, or incredibly grateful. Such again was the hospitality and understanding of the Japanese people, respectful of everyone’s differences.
The Japan Times today reported that the apparent self restraint of the Japanese following last month’s disaster is keeping tourism away. In Japan’s usually busiest season, festivals like the Three Shrine Festival in Tokyo's Asakusa district are facing cancellation. It usually attracts 1.5 million people, and it would be the first time it has been cancelled since World War II. The death toll after the tsunami is in excess of 18,000, and yet the Japanese carry on rebuilding their lives seemingly in quiet acceptance. We can learn a lot from the Japanese and their economy will now need even more tourism to help rebuild their future, so please visit. It is an experience you will never forget, and for all the right reasons, I promise.
Follow Lisa Jenkins on Twitter @Lisa_J73
Photo courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organisation.