One of the best things about spring in Japan might be non-existent this year because of the coronavirus.

The sakura (cherry blossoms) are constantly cited as the most recognizable sign of spring in Japan, and that’s definitely true. When trees all over the country burst into breathtakingly beautiful clusters of pink flowers right about the time it gets warm enough to go outside without a heavy coat, people tend to mentally connect the two events.

But there’s another sight that shows you when spring is in full swing in Japan, and that’s the sudden appearance of crowds of people in parks for hanami, or cherry blossom-viewing, parties.

However, Tokyo might be seeing only one of those signs of spring this year. While the blooming of the sakura is an inevitable gift from Mother Nature, hanami parties are a conscious decision by the people attending, and government organizations across Japan are cautioning people to avoid unnecessary gatherings and crowded places as a countermeasure to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

Hanami parties are generally all-day affairs, with a small contingent of friends or coworkers arriving early in the morning to stake out prime park spots and the festivities lasting into the early evening and often the night. The most popular sakura locations turn into stationary seas of people, and since cherry blossom-viewing parties are as much about eating and drinking as they are looking at flowers, attending one means spending several hours in close proximity to others with your mask removed in order to take bites of food or sips of your beverage.

All of those are conditions conducive to coronavirus transmission, and so on March 4 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government released a statement asking that people refrain from having parties, particularly those which involve eating or drinking, in municipally managed parks and riversides during hanami season. Ostensibly, the government would prefer if people refrain from parties in parks and other outdoor areas that aren’t under its supervision as well, but lacks the jurisdiction to officially make such a request.

The government’s stance is more lenient regarding strolling along cherry tree-lined streets while gazing up at the blossoms, though even then the statement urges people to thoroughly cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing to help lessen any possible chance of spreading infection.

At the moment, the government is merely requesting that people refrain from having stationary cherry blossom parties, not outright banning or outlawing them. It’s also worth noting that somei yoshino sakura trees, the most popular and prevalent variety in Japan, aren’t expected to begin blooming in Tokyo until March 19, so the government guidelines could change again before the flowers reach full bloom.

Source: Tokyo Metropolitan Government via IT Media
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Follow Casey on Twitter, where one of his most memorable hanami moments is the time he got thrown into a sakura tree.