COVID-19 rolls out spring ‘hanami’ season in Japan | Arts and Culture News

Tokyo, Japan – Watching cherry blossoms, called ‘hanami’ in Japanese, is one of the East Asian nation’s most iconic and beloved traditions, but this year the COVID pandemic continues. 19 puts a stop to this year’s festivities.

The custom is thought to have taken root in Japan around 1,200 years ago, and today the sighting of sakura, or cherry blossoms, is one of the most anticipated times of the year.

Reports of when and where the pale pink blossoms will emerge from the branches are zealously followed by many Japanese – the peak of the hanami is set to take place in Tokyo on March 22 this year – and many local artistic motifs are being built. around the coming of spring and what is considered a joyous season.

While the hanami is certainly an effective symbol of Japanese cultural sophistication, it is also a time when families and friends gather outdoors to have fun among the flowers.

In large parks in Tokyo and other urban areas, hanami areas are often overrun with visitors during peak season. Picnic blankets cover the grass and loud drunken conversations fill the air among the crowded crowds. Nearby trash cans are overflowing with unsightly packaging leftovers from lunch boxes, plastic cups and more.

Hanami season in Japan usually means crowds of people enjoying picnics under the flowers as they celebrate the arrival of spring. [Michael Penn/Al Jazeera]

Given the continuing coronavirus outbreak, authorities, concerned about the potential risk of spread, have attempted to set firm limits on the celebrations this year.

Earlier this month, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said, “I’m so sorry for this year’s hanami, but I would like to ask people to go without.”

The main goal of the governor’s policy is to implement a ban on people eating and drinking in public parks during hanami season, although there is some variation in how the policy is enforced. .

Keep moving

Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park blocked all public access for nearly a month to its sakura garden and central plaza, while Ueno Park established barriers creating one-way pedestrian lanes. Visitors are welcome to enjoy the hanami, but only if they keep walking.

Likewise, the more suburban Inokashira Park has erected bright orange barriers to keep people away from the benches and more scenic spots of its lake, lest eye delight tempt rebellious souls to linger too long.

Noriko Naito, director general and public relations officer of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, told Al Jazeera English that this year, “many more people will benefit from hanami in their homes by purchasing cherry blossom bonsai,” referring to the trees. traditional miniaturized pot. in Japan.

She also said that people don’t really have to go to parks to see the flowers since they are all over Japan.

“Even at the entrance to my apartment, there is a very large cherry blossom tree,” she observes.

Much of the general public seems ready to comply.

Spring flower blooming is eagerly awaited in Japan, which has an official hanami forecast, with a hanami peak expected for Tokyo on March 22 this year. [Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

An opinion poll conducted by the Kakuyasu firm and released last week found that while around 72% of respondents say they usually or always enjoy hanami in spring, this year only 32% plan to stick to their custom. .

Almost 23 percent responded that they still want to go out to see the flowers, but have chosen to exercise personal restraint this year.

“So far I don’t have any invitations,” said Kasumi Hirokawa, Tokyo office worker, “I think everyone takes care and stays home as much as possible.

She adds, “I’ll try to make an effort to get out and walk around my neighborhood, because there’s a little stream in front of my apartment with a row of sakura on both sides.”

Of course, not all Japanese live in Tokyo, and many regional and rural areas adopt a more relaxed hanami policy.

Virtual visualization

Aki Yoshida, a part-time English teacher, lives on the northern island of Hokkaido, where flowers typically bloom several weeks later than in other parts of Japan.

Yoshida recalls that she mainly attended parties when she was a college student.

In Hokkaido, standard cultural practices are somewhat different from those in Tokyo. Rather than a boxed lunch, the Japanese in this region usually see the flowers while being gathered around a hot grill cooking strips of lamb, known locally as “Chinggis Khan barbecue”.

Kanazawa’s Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of Japan’s best traditional gardens, is a popular place to enjoy spring flowers [File: Kate Mayberry/Al Jazeera]

The pandemic, however, won’t affect Yoshida much, who is usually confined to staring at sakura while walking the avenues.

She believes that, even with the lifting of the official state of emergency, residents of the Tokyo area should still refrain from going out and having hanami parties.

“Last year,” she said, “the number of people infected increased dramatically in April, during the hanami season. I think we shouldn’t repeat the same mistake.

She advises that those who really need to scratch their itch while looking at the flowers could try the “virtual hanami” alternative instead.

Indeed, if it is not yet popularized, efforts are underway to create a virtual hanami experience for the Japanese public.

For example, the official “Uenon Channel” was created on YouTube in which the official character of Ueno Park’s mascot – Uenon – guides viewers through the delights of the park, without a word but to a musical soundtrack. .

Notice boards have been set up in the park to promote the YouTube channel and provide a QR code to guide people to its address.

Some television programs have also educated their viewers on various options for following the flowers from the computerized comfort of their homes.

While not everyone is expected to cooperate with the authorities’ demands to avoid hanami festivals, most Japanese in crowded urban areas seem to have gotten the message that even though they love flowers, spring will come again. years to come.

“I just hope everyone stays safe and the pandemic is behind us,” said Hirokawa, the Tokyo office worker.

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