Johanna Jainchill, Travel Weekly's editor at large, toured northern Japan as a guest of the the local tourism authorities in advance of the World Travel and Tourism Council Summit. Her second dispatch follows. Click to read Johanna's first dispatch.
SENDAI, Japan — The annual Sakura, or cherry blossom festivals, held throughout Japan every spring will have amplified meaning this year in Tohoku, the northeast region of the nation's main island.
Last year, the festivals took place less than two months after a powerful earthquake and devastating tsunami struck this region on March 11, 2011.
Festivals that normally draw hundreds of thousands, and in some places over a million people, saw visitor reductions of up to 80%, as fears of nuclear contamination from the Fukishima power plant kept tourists at bay.
One year later, tourism officials are optimistic that the cherry blossom visitors will be back, bringing a much-needed influx of tourist spending and goodwill.
Hirosaki, located in the very north of Tohoku, hosts Japan’s largest sakura festival, drawing 2.6 million visitors annually to a city of 190,000 people. The festival is by far the largest tourist draw to Hirosaki, which is otherwise known for being the country’s top apple producer.
Over the weekend, hundreds of workers were busy at the picturesque Hirosaki Castle Park, painting hundreds-year-old bridges and light posts along pathways, and setting up vendor tents.
The festival begins April 23 and ends May 5, and is held on the site of a former castle that still boasts its moats, castle walls and three-story Castle Tower (which is now a museum).
Every prefecture in Tohoku hosts its own version of a cherry blossom festival, and each is anxiously hoping tourists will return this year.
The sakura draw is short-lived, but the locals are optimistic that that its success will kick off a year of continued growth in tourism to this region of rivers, mountains and coastal areas that serve as the backdrop for seasonal festivals throughout the year.
The sakura is more than just a festival — the tree and its blossoms have long been an important part of Japanese tradition. Its short blooming season, which ends with the falling of the flowers to the ground, symbolizes the fleeting quality of life and the power of rebirth.
For the northern Japanese tourism industry, that is exactly what this cherry blossom season represents: the rebirth of a new era of tourism, after a year defined by tragedy.
Follow Johanna Jainchill on Twitter @jjainchilltw.