Enjoy Japan’s famous cherry blossoms from anywhere in the world

Photos by Erica Earl
Photos by Erica Earl

Enjoy Japan’s famous cherry blossoms from anywhere in the world

by Erica Earl
Stars and Stripes

It’s Sakura season in Japan, a highly anticipated time of year to celebrate the fleeting beauty of the 200 different species of cherry blossoms that bloom across the country during spring.

It’s one of the most coveted times of the year for foreigners and usually a high tourism season as people flock to see the blooms. But as Japan’s borders remained closed for the third spring in a row during the coronavirus pandemic, tourism companies like Arigato Travel are offering up virtual experiences for people to enjoy from anywhere and to help connect people to Japanese culture, including hanami, or flower viewing.

I participated in a virtual tour led by Lauren Shannon, a resident of Japan for the past 24 years who worked in the technology and hospitality fields before becoming a tour guide 10 years ago.

The week prior, I had to quarantine because I caught COVID-19, and was heartbroken about missing the first week of Sakura blossoms in what may potentially be my last spring in Japan.  I have been playing catch up for the Sakura viewing and was excited to participate in this virtual tour.

Arigato Travel’s virtual hanami experience is a mix of history and culture lessons as well as a chance to absorb the beauty through photos and live streams. The tour includes footage of Sakura in Tokyo, Gunma, Shizouka, Yokohama and more as well as lessons, polls and quizzes about the sacred Sakura.

Even though I have been living in Japan for two years now, to include two Sakura seasons, I still learned something new, such as the oldest Sakura tree in Japan is around 2,000 years old, and there is a “space Sakura” in Yamanashi, a tree planted from seeds that were sent into orbit as a collaboration between NASA and Japan’s space program.

These tours are available to anyone anywhere in the world. I was joined by people from Canada, Australia, the U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago.

The one-hour hanami tour costs 2,500 yen and is a limited run through April 15.

It covered Sakura season customs, the significance of the Sakura in Japanese culture, trivia and pop culture. It felt more like a conversation than a lecture, which I enjoyed.

Normally, I am not a fan of virtual tours. I think “why would I pay for an online tour if I can’t be there in person? Google is free!”

But, as Shannon pointed out, these tours can feel more intimate than Google and, while not a perfect replacement for travel, can scratch the itch for people who can’t travel because of the border closure, accessibility issues, finances and more.

“We are committed to maintaining the virtual tours even after travel to Japan reopens,” Shannon told me before the tour, which was held on Zoom. “It is part of the ‘dreaming of travel’ cycle, connecting with someone in that country first and getting first-hand information. It is like a living, breathing guidebook.”

Arigato Travel started offering virtual Sakura tours in April 2020 in collaboration with Beeyonder, a virtual tour company founded for bringing the world to people who cannot physically travel to due to various challenges.

Arigato Travel has hosted around 29,000 guests since its launch in 2016. Shannon said the virtual tours can help facilitate even more guests, even if not physically.

“It is an optimistic approach as we wait out the travel restrictions,” Shannon said.

A common theme of the tour was the celebration on the impermanence of the Sakura, something that I also find bittersweet.

I must confess, I actually get a little stressed around Sakura season. I feel pressure to see the blooms in as many locations as possible, get perfect photos for my social media, write stories for work, get limited edition food and drinks before they sell out, enjoy hanami and picnics, and soak in their beauty all in a compressed time, as the blooms only last about two weeks. And God forbid there is bad weather, or, like this year, I get sick! I felt very anxious about having to quarantine for a big chunk of the season this year and pressed to fit everything into my schedule before the flowers die, but the tour was a good reminder that the rarity of the Sakura is part of their beauty, and to relax.

 There is even a popular Japanese folk song called “Sakura” that addresses the bittersweetness of the shortness of the season, which guests of the tour can hear as part of the experience.

As the fragile flowers can sometimes bloom earlier or later than forecasted, the virtual tour is also good for foreigners who want to see live footage of the blooms without having to worry about timing their trip perfectly.

Arigato Travel offers other virtual tours such as a green tea experience, a mixology class, tours of Mt. Fuji and tours of downtown Tokyo.

These tours are a great way to share a piece of Japan with family and friends.

Enjoy virtual hanami and more

For more information about online tours, visit Arigato Japan.

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