Japan's cherry blossom season came a little later than expected this year


By LEESAN

Thousand-year-old weeping cherry blossoms (Shidare-zakura) at the Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto. — Photos: LEESAN

Japan’s Sakura Matsuri festival started as a simple celebration of spring time, but has since evolved and developed to become a major pillar of the country’s tourism industry.

In just 30 days – from mid-March to mid-April – the number of inbound tourists in Japan can easily surpass three million. It is not hard to imagine how much this influx of tourists will stimulate consumption in various economic sectors. Even the very commonplace matcha ice cream, seasonal desserts and pharmaceutical gifts, along with the sandos and bentos sold in Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, are snatched up each day.

Business owners are definitely making good money during this peak travel season.

That said, though, many of the millions of sakura chasers who thronged the country from all around the world (including yours truly), have some complaints about the late arrival of the cherry blossom season this year.

Taking Japan’s early bloom and full bloom (which was on March 18) dates last year as an indicator, I timed my trip to Tokyo between March 20 and 31 this year, in order to catch the best blooms from Tokyo, and all the way south to Kyoto, Osaka and Nara.

Unfortunately, as of the morning of April 4, which was the date I flew back to Kuala Lumpur from Osaka’s Kansai Airport, there were still only flower buds on the cherry trees all around the city. The flowers actually only started blooming about 14 to 18 days later than this year’s anticipated dates!

And that’s not all. The cherry trees in the Old City of Kyoto, known for its more than 1,000 temples and shrines, were only 50% blooming, while most of the trees inside the Kiyomizu-dera and Byodo-in temples did not even show signs of flowering when I was there.

The columnist’s travel buddy William (right) has encountered cherry blossoms countless times, and enjoys all his experiences.The columnist’s travel buddy William (right) has encountered cherry blossoms countless times, and enjoys all his experiences.

Even the trees in Nara’s most iconic cherry blossom spot, Yoshinoyama, were only sporadically flowering, much to the frustration of international travellers.

The millions of tourists flocking into Japan specifically to see the flowers were invariably disappointed, much to the chagrin of the Japanese tourism authorities.

But, as I have always said, no one can change the laws of Nature. Although, from what I understand, there have been many unexpected things happening to our planet these past two years, and Japan is not exempt from this.

The Earth’s energy is being constantly renewed. It is said that Earth will officially enter the “Fire Forbidden Cycle” between 2024 and 2043, when a new “mega-trend” will descend and stay for two whole decades.

Anyway, we are now increasingly feeling the reality that the transitional period between the old and new energies will have a strong bearing on everyone’s destiny. Being part of this process, we will have to understand such a transformation, especially the changes taking place in our natural ecosystem as a consequence of climate change. That explains why the rhythm of the cherry flower buds has been disrupted by the sudden and unpredictable changes in the environment.

Notably, the unusually frequent natural disasters striking Japan at the start of the year have triggered climatic anomalies. The temperature was still a chilly 7°C in Tokyo and Osaka as late as mid-March, with two to three days of rain – a weather pattern that does not augur well for the cherry blossoms.

Back to our topic, many travellers planned their cherry viewing trips over a year ago in hopes of witnessing the full bloom of what they call the “warrior’s flowers”, and seizing the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the true meaning of life.

Chinese author Jin Yong once said that the gist of life is to make a “hoo-ha” before bowing out quietly. Travellers are eager to have a great time at the right moment just to leave behind happy memories that will hopefully last a lifetime.

With 22 travel buddies following me, we landed at Kansai Airport on March 24, and then proceeded to board the coach across the Seto bridge into Tokushima, Kyushu, followed by a cruise to Shodo Island, Okayama, Arima, Nara, Mie and Kyoto. We felt a little nervous seeing only sporadic cherry blossoms along our way. But since we were already in Japan, there was not much we could do about the late cherry blossoms, so we decided to take things easy and enjoyed the wonderful weather.

Also, whenever we did spot the sakura, we took the time to learn more about the many varieties of cherry trees and flower buds. Our moods experienced a dramatic shift each time, as if we were instantly transported back to our younger self, going to picnics and learning new things.

To be honest, I had never expected that sakura hunting could be this much fun!

Another one of the columnist’s travel buddies, wearing a Japanese yukata in Kyoto, posing for pictures among light pink cherry blossoms.Another one of the columnist’s travel buddies, wearing a Japanese yukata in Kyoto, posing for pictures among light pink cherry blossoms.

As if taking over my job, my travel buddies tried to comfort me, saying: “There’re not too many flowers to see at this moment, but don’t worry, in Japan there are plenty of forests, farmlands, rivers and clean air, and experiences that money cannot buy. Take an onsen bath to relieve fatigue, and savour a sumptuous dinner when night falls. This is what life is supposed to be!”

Indeed, Japan’s tourism resources have always been an exquisite blend of humanistic culture and a wonderful natural environment, and you can always enjoy them in any way you wish.

Moreover, from spring through summer, a great variety of local culinary delights will pop up at supermarkets and shops everywhere, so it is definitely a good time to be in Japan. These tasty treats include mochi with azuki bean filling from various rural communities that has since become one of my most favourite snacks, especially when paired with a cup of hot matcha.

Unpredictable things may happen throughout any journey, and it is up to the individual to control the outcome – if you want to turn it into a pleasant experience then you need to be more positive about things.

By the way, while we cannot force every traveller to abide by local customs or travel “dos and don’ts”, there might be some nice surprises waiting for us if we are willing to adopt a more open attitude and accept these “rules”.

With the cherry blossoms now at the very end of their blooming period, another year has come and gone. It is my wish that by now you have discovered in your journey the lubricant that cheers up your life!

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Leesan, the globe-trotting traveller who has visited 139 countries and seven continents, enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.

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