As Japan's cherry trees burst with color, coronavirus turns tide of admirers into trickle

OSAKA, Japan – Usually the beginning of cherry blossom time at Osaka Castle Park in Osaka, Japan is greeted by a crowd of tourists walking up the paths and gates to see the cherry trees in bloom.

But the few tourists who are seen now are a fraction of the usual crowd even for a Monday morning, said Yasuyuki Funabiki, a volunteer guide from the Osaka Systematized Good-Will Guides Club.

“Only 1 percent,” said Funabiki, comparing the usual crowds to the handful of tourists and locals hanging around the top of the park.

The castle tower, which houses a museum, was closed in late February along with other national museums and attractions as a measure to prevent corona viruses.

The number of foreign visitors to Japan fell by 58.3 percent in February compared to the same period in the previous year. This is the largest decline since the great earthquake in eastern Japan in 2011.

35+ Cherry Blossom Quotes

Japan had registered 1,193 cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, excluding the 712 cases from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. There were 43 coronavirus-related deaths.

Empty benches and almost deserted walking areas in front of the main tower of Osaka CastleCullen Bird / NBC News

Hanami or flower watching is a tradition that goes back more than 1,000 years in Japan. Cherry blossoms mean impermanence and are one of the most important motifs in Japanese art and popular culture.

“Sometimes people compare their lives to cherry blossoms,” said Atsuko Tanaka, another Osaka SGG Club volunteer leader.

The blooming of cherry blossoms and the mild spring weather in late March to early April make it the busiest section of the tourism season in Japan.

As the Japanese government urges people to avoid large gatherings, Japanese companies and groups are unlikely to hold their usual outdoor parties on blankets under the cherry trees.

In normal years, Japanese companies and groups host parties on blankets under the cherry trees. However, this year is unlikely to happen, Tanaka said. The club canceled all planned tours.

“Personally, I think that’s a wise decision,” said Funabiki.

Several voluntary tour guide groups in Kyoto have also canceled their planned tours.

Fortunately for Funabiki, he doesn’t have to go to a park to see cherry blossoms or make contacts.

“My house has a cherry tree and every year I ask my son or daughter’s family to come to my house and we have a little party,” he said.

In late February, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked schools to close for this month. However, the reopening is planned for early April.

In recent weeks, concerns about the spread of COVID-19 have shifted from Japan, China, and South Korea to Europe and the United States.

Surgical masks, which are often worn at work or in crowded commuting in Japan, are not available in drug stores and supermarkets. Outside the park, many park visitors saw no need to carry them.

Despite the looming pandemic, there were still travelers trying to enjoy a beautiful spring day.

A garden pond in Osaka Castle Park, with Osaka Castle Park in the background.Cullen Bird / NBC News

“We have planned this trip for about two years,” said Maggie Bocker, 44, from Darmstadt, who was visiting Milan together with her husband. “It was not an option to cancel everything.”

The couple are planning a 21-day vacation in Japan. Since the cherry blossoms are still a few days away, they plan to see them bloom when they go to Kyoto, their next destination.

While taking some precautions, they do not change their plans otherwise.

“We can get [coronavirus] in Germany or here, ”she said.

Instead of holding a hanami party, Tanaka said she would take her mother, who is over 80 years old, to see the cherry blossoms in Nara, a city about an hour east of Osaka.

“I think Nara Park for us because my mother wanted to see cherry blossoms,” she said.

“Every year I refused because I was very busy, but this year I have more free time.”

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