‘We have waited so long’: a cautious Tokyo celebrates cherry blossoms in shadow of Covid | Japan


After two years of pandemic-related cancellations and restrictions, Japan is again observing the time-honoured ritual of hanami – cherry blossom viewing.

As the delicate pink flowers reached their peak, people who had previously avoided the crowds – or had their local viewing festivals called off – have turned out in large numbers to view Tokyo’s sakura petals.

But a rise in Covid-19 cases in the capital since quasi-emergency restrictions were lifted at the start of last week has sparked concern that the long-awaited hanami season could help fuel a resurgence.

At Chidorigafuchi park, a famous hanami spot northwest of the imperial palace, thousands of people viewed the flowers as they walked beneath rows of trees or from rowing boats on the palace moat.

The blossoms reached full bloom in Tokyo on Sunday – four days earlier than average but five days later than last year – when temperatures reached 21C, according to the meteorological agency.

“I feel like life has finally gotten back to normal,” Takanori Shiwaku, a 62-year-old cafe owner, said as he strolled in the park. “Here in the downtown area, people have waited for this for so long.”

Midori Hayashi, 75, has spent most of the past two years staying at home. Hayashi said she was “really happy” to finally be able to admire the blossoms.

While Covid-19 measures, including restrictions on bar and restaurant opening times, were lifted on 21 March, local authorities have asked hanami-goers to be vigilant.

Shigeru Omi, who heads the government’s coronavirus advisory panel, urged them to wear masks and avoid parties where large numbers of people eat and drink together, the Japan Times said.

Tokyo reported 7,846 new Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, more than twice the 3,533 a week earlier, in a resurgence attributed to the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron.

Japan recorded 29,740 new infections on Monday, up slightly from the previous week, bringing the country’s total to about 6.4m, including about 28,000 deaths.

The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, who has likened preventing Japanese people from celebrating beneath the blossoms to “taking hugs away from Italians”, said there was evidence that BA.2 was replacing the existing variant “with significant speed”.

With Associated Press