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Japan’s springtime boom

Japan’s cherry blossom season is a time-honoured tradition that is celebrated across the length and breadth of the country. This integral part of Japanese culture brings a flood of new visitors each year, and with it, a sizable boost to the country’s economy

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Met with anticipation and reverence each year, the tradition known as ‘Hanami’ has endured across Japan for centuries. The cherry blossom season is celebrated throughout the country, with crowds flocking to witness the celestial beauty of the country’s national symbol during a relatively small window of opportunity. Daily updates feature in newspapers and on television, providing forecasts of when and where the blossoming will occur, as well as which events are taking place to commemorate the event.

From one end of Japan to the other, the cherry blossoms (or ‘sakura’ in Japanese) bloom at slightly different times; commencing in Okinawa in the south from as early as January and with the last petal falling in the northern tip of the country in late April. Mother Nature’s steady rhythm provides a natural schedule and route for travel throughout the country, giving fortunate sightseers the chance to reach each destination just in time to bask in its own individual, scenic splendour.

The spirit of Japan
This annual wonder unites the country and transcends social hierarchy, with millions undertaking domestic travel in order to view Japan’s most iconic Hanami areas. The reasoning behind this level of adoration is multi-faceted, although one only has to see the bloom to understand why the beauty captivates the entire country.

228,000

North American and European visitors attended Hanami in April 2014

20%

The rise in international visitors from the previous year

Nonetheless, it’s not just the aesthetic dimension that enthrals the Japanese psyche – the essence of Hanami goes far beyond that, to a deeper, more intrinsic level. “This is just my personal opinion, but I think Japanese people love sakura because the flower’s life is so short and falls soon”, says Yoko Hayano, Senior Consultant for Japan Tourism Marketing Co. “We love not only full-blown blossoms, but also falling cherries. Wabi and sabi are [a] sense of beauty in Japan based on Zen, which admires something that is not perfect, such as [a] cracked teacup and the ‘Thirteenth Night Moon’ (nearly full but not [quite] a full moon). I think Sakura fits that kind of frame of mind.” This is particularly distinctive in the Japanese consciousness, which – from the time of the samurai – has been known for its focus on precision and desire for perfection.

The sakura capture the delicate and finite aspect of existence. The passing of each season marks the life cycle for all creatures, plus all of the beauty and charm that exists throughout each stage. As the almond-like fragrance fills the air every spring, those in the vicinity are reminded of new beginnings and fresh optimism for the coming year. The unique experience brings people together – not only through the seductive magnificence of the sight, but also by the allure of its transcendent spirituality.

Cherry blossom at Chidorigafuchi Park
Cherry blossom at Chidorigafuchi Park

Drawing communities together
Though its reputation grows with each passing year, the magic of the cherry blossom season is relatively unknown to those outside of Japan. That said, international tourists are beginning to join the Japanese in revelling at the short-lived marvel, choosing spring as their preferred time of travel. According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), April 2014 saw the largest number of foreign visitors arriving from Europe and North America, with 120,433 and 107,388 tourists respectively. These figures rose by over 20 percent from the previous year, indicating that the season’s relative anonymity outside of Japan may now be a thing of the past. “The scenic beauty of cherry blossoms in Japan and our culture [of] enjoying them is Japan’s unique selling point. Almost all tour operators, which sell Japan travel, have tours to Japan in the cherry blossom season. That means cherry blossoms are a must see point for foreign tourists as well”, says Mamoru Kobori, Senior Executive Director at the JNTO. “With the power of word of mouth, cherry blossom season is getting even more popular among incoming tourists.”

Unlike other natural phenomena, the cherry blossom is not only confined to rural areas, with parks in major cities also drawing in the crowds. In Tokyo – a city known for high technology, electric lights and synthetic colour – soft hues of pink and white can be seen dancing in the breeze every year; a welcome respite for those living in the concrete jungle. Workers on their lunch breaks take a short walk to neighbouring parks in order to immerse themselves in the seasonal celebration. Hama-Rikyu Garden and Rikugien Garden are favourites among locals and tourists alike, although there are numerous other destinations to explore; each with pathways lined with vendors offering traditional food and drink.

Picnicking is one of the most popular activities for those revelling under sakura trees, where the consumption of sake, beer and festival specialities is commonplace. Bento boxes – containers for food that comprise individual sections – often hold food shaped like sakura petals or incorporating pink designs. Locals usually mark out their spots early in the morning with a blanket that includes their name and viewing times in order to secure the perfect space. “People from all over Japan, mostly adults, visit to see the cherry blossoms.

It is their culture to celebrate and have a picnic party during the season. Many businesses also have parties during this time”, Yumiko Henry, a tour operator with All Japan Tours, tells Business Destinations. Crowds tend to form at lunchtime, with festivities lasting until late into the night. The atmosphere grows more vibrant with the hour – trees are illuminated as dusk sets in, creating a mystical glow around them.

Touring the country
In Tokyo, the sight of Chidorigafuchi Koen Edo Castle covered in blossom is widely considered to be one of the city’s most breathtaking spectacles. Additionally, just a short ride away on the metro, visitors can find themselves among over 1,000 sakura trees at the dedicated sightseeing attraction, Yasukuni Shrine, or the equally impressive Imperial Palace Tokyo Gardens. The trees on show at the Shinjuku Gyoen gardens are of over a dozen varieties, while the annual showcase at Ueno Park is the city’s busiest.

Tourists can enjoy trips to one particular area, or if they have the extra time and money, they can book an excursion that spans the entire country. Every municipality offers its own cherry blossom tour, along with tips on how to best experience the season based on the famous sites within. However, the cost of undertaking such an expedition is predictably high, and so the number of people able to enjoy an all-encompassing experience is largely restricted. For those who do opt to travel the country during the Hanami season, however, travelling by train is the most popular method of transport, particularly as it allows visitors to enjoy the sight of the thousands of cherry blossom trees that line the country’s train tracks.

Those wishing to experience ancient Japan can visit Kyoto; the city known for its former geisha districts, traditional teahouses and Buddhist temples. The serene atmosphere of the city harks back to days gone by, and is a fascinating celebration of traditional Japanese culture. Then there is the tropical climate of Okinawa, which offers yet another dimension to Japan and its vast range of characters. The Nago Cherry Blossom Festival is the most famed on this island, offering a variety of performances for onlookers to enjoy – from brass bands, to taiko drummers and traditional Eisa dancers. Parades, carnival games and karaoke competitions further add to the festivities, making this a truly exceptional time of year to visit Japan’s southernmost prefecture.

With so much on offer, picking only one location in which to enjoy the sakura can be a difficult task for any traveller. “There are a lot of local cities and regions famous for their beautiful cherry blossoms, and it is a great opportunity for them to attract more tourists”, Kobori tells Business Destinations. “For example, the Hirosaki Park in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture, has the oldest Yoshino cherry tree [in the area], which was planted in 1882. The cherry blossom festival, Hirosaki Sakura Matsuri, is held every year when the cherry blossoms are in peak bloom.” In this renowned spot for inbound travellers, visitors can enjoy the sakura from the famous Hirosaki Castle, looking toward the view of the stunning slopes of Mount Iwaki. Tourists also like to rent small boats and leisurely meander through the west moat area under the cascading trees – and for those that miss the peak season, they can still catch the blanket of fallen blossom that covers the moat in a sea of fluffy pink for weeks afterwards.

Blossom in Nagoya
Blossom in Nagoya

Nature’s economic boost
Being an integral part of both Japanese history and the country’s cultural calendar, the cherry blossom provides a boost to the economy every spring by means of significantly increasing tourism and consumption. As well as visiting different sites and celebrating with friends, family and colleagues throughout the season, individuals tend to buy sakura-themed products, foods and drinks to mark the occasion. Hotels, restaurants and gift shops benefit from increased revenue, as do travel agents, transport services and tour operators. “The cherry blossom season is one of the busiest seasons for tourism in Japan. Our company’s sales increase by four times compared with any other month”, says Henry. As the festival approaches, competition within the industry becomes increasingly fierce, with some businesses struggling against the rising prices that plague the industry every season. “Travel agencies compete with each other every year to reserve hotels for their customers, as hotels raise their booking prices because of the busy season.

Hotels make more profit than travel agencies in some respect, because hotels may raise their prices, but we cannot suddenly raise the tour prices once advertised”, Henry continues.

Kakunodate is an example of a local economy that relies heavily on the cherry blossom season for revenue each year. While the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 caused a large decline in the number of tourists arriving in the town, such numbers now continue to grow each year and have almost returned to pre-earthquake levels, reaching 1.4 million in 2013. According to the Akita Economic Research Institute, the economic impact of the influx of visitors during the Kakunodate cherry blossom festival in 2013 totalled JPY 6.9bn ($8.9bn) in consumer spending, boosting the economy of the Akita Prefecture as a whole by JPY 11.1bn ($14.3bn). “We speculate [that] businesses in the service industry, including eating and drinking establishments, Japanese inns, hotels, transportation and communication services, are the main beneficiaries”, says Kazuhito Hosaka, Senior Associate Director of the International Tourism Section for the Akita Prefecture Government.

In Kakunodate, “visitors stroll down the streets of the samurai residences and alongside the bank of the Hinokinai River. The contrast between the black walls of the samurai houses and the overhanging cherry blossoms is a remarkable sight to see”, Hosaka tells Business Destinations. “The approximately 2km corridor of cherry blossoms along the Hinokinai River also makes for a spectacular scene. Many other notable tourist destinations, such as Lake Tazawa and the Nyuto hot spring village are located in the surrounding area. There are also many spots to view seasonal flowers like the katakuri trout lily and mizubasho, so visitors can enjoy a wide variety of sightseeing.”

Profiting from Hanami
Companies, both domestic and international, are able to take advantage of the special place that the cherry blossom season holds in the hearts and minds of the population each year. Cherry blossom motifs and pink-themed marketing dominate the scene, from a commuter’s transport route on the Tokyo Metro to the products that the population buys every day. During the season, McDonaldses across Japan feature a cherry blossom-themed menu, consisting of a pink-bunned burger and McFizz Sakura Cherry and McFloat Sakura Cherry drinks. “In general, Japanese love to celebrate with seasonal themes. Spring is an especially festive time after the cold winter, and Sakura is an icon of spring”, a McDonalds representative in Japan told Business Destinations.

Starbucks sells a selection of pink cakes and cherry blossom-decorated beverage holders, as well as offering the Sakura Frappuccino on its seasonal menu. Häagen-Dazs also went pink for its 30th anniversary year, when it released a sakura-flavoured ice cream, while the Sakura Matcha Kit-Kat bar is on shelves in Japan all year round. Aside from the food and drink industry, various other companies have also created cherry blossom products for the Japanese market, including a range of cosmetic creams by Garnier. Add these to the seemingly endless list of other Japanese brands and products embracing the sakura theme year after year, and it is evident that the festival holds a place in the country’s cultural core that extends far beyond just sightseeing.

International icebreaker
Being one the world’s largest economies, international companies have ample dealings with Japanese counterparts. The country’s business etiquette is held in high honour and is quite different from that of the Western world: for example, if you arrive to a meeting less than 15 minutes early, you are considered as being late. Exchanging business cards also has its own ceremony, with an intent look of interest required when being handed the prized object – putting it away without reading is considered a personal slight. And so, for those planning to communicate with Japanese customers or even visit the country itself, the language barrier and the need to negotiate through such customs can be an intimidating task.

The sakura season, however, provides the perfect icebreaker when adopting new business ties. So sacred is the event that genuine interest from a foreigner is very warmly received, making spring the perfect time for corporate travellers wishing to forge new business relations to visit Japan – not only because this is widely regarded as the best time to see the country in its natural splendour, but also because the sakura and the sensory explosion that they provide offer a unique opportunity for relationship building with clients and partners that only comes around once a year.

Tokyo at night
Tokyo at night

Growth spurt
Each year during the cherry blossom season, Japan’s international tourism increases exponentially. The country is not yet a traditional tourist destination, but the season nonetheless provides something unique and time-limited – both of which are tantalising for travellers. In addition to a one-off opportunity to witness Japan when it is awash with beauty and festivity, there are countless other highlights that the country has to offer. Such sights range from architecture, stylised gardens and art galleries, each comprising a design that is distinctively Japanese. There is an array of lively cities, and the country is also home to the greatest number of Michelin-rated restaurants in the world – sufficient to whet the appetite of any visitor.

Newer art forms, such as manga, anime, RPG games and the national icon that is Hello Kitty, all attract cult followings of their own. This juxtaposition between modern trends and customary artistries such as origami, calligraphy, kabuki theatre and bonsai provides a unique plethora of old and new attractions, which can appeal to a variety of tastes and interests. Additionally, the commercial opportunities in Japan are as varied as they are vast for those visiting on business. Traditional aspects of the country’s history, together with its ultra-modern tech scene, highlights the fascinating, rich and complex culture of Japan, making it a spectacular place to travel – during its favourite season, or any other time of year.

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