Mar 30, 2016

    A picnic to draw cherry-blossom fans


    THE someiyoshino cherry trees are blooming in Osaka. 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 also to enjoy Japanese-style hanami parties or picnics under the trees.

    Travel agencies and local governments with such tourist spots are scrambling to keep up with demand.

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

    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.

    The Chinese do not hold Japanese-style hanami parties so many Chinese tourists are said to be curious about the traditions here.

    Freeplus, an Osaka travel agency, 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 the middle of next month.

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

    "Visitors from overseas might make up more than half of the total this season," a park official 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.

    With more people comes a greater possibility of problems.

    Maruyama Park in Higashiyama Ward, Kyoto, had been featured in magazines from China and Taiwan since about two years ago. This and other sources of publicity have led to a rise 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 it is a matter of "just in case", a park official said.

    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 early next month 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 this week, which should cause trees to blossom quickly.

    Cooler temperatures arrived in the middle of 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.