In Japan this spring, the color of money is pink. Thanks to the weak yen, Japan is suddenly affordable. Visitors from Asia and elsewhere are coming in record numbers to experience that most iconic of Japanese events, cherry blossom season.
Japan's favorite nationwide party runs from mid-March until May 10th. Tokyo should be in full bloom around April 1st, through the hanami (blossom viewing) parties get going several days in advance. Northern cities like Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture see the best blooms during the last week of April. Sapporo, sometime in May. (Kyoto and Osaka are usually a week to 10 days earlier than Tokyo.)
The Japanese edition of Korean Daily Joongang Ilbo has projected an increase of inbound Korean cherry blossom travelers by up to 70 percent for this period. Travel by inbound Chinese is growing exponentially as well. During February's Lunar New Year, over 1.3 million Chinese visited Japan according to the Japan National Tourism Agency (JNTO). That's more than double the arrivals for the same month last year.
Newly relaxed visa rules have boosted visitors from Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia (no visa needed for a stay of up to 15 days). February statistics from the JNTO show an increase of 14 percent from the U.S. and 20 percent from the U.K., with higher rates anticipated for spring.
This is good news for hotels. A survey of 556 Tokyo hotels from the Chinese-language Morning Post newspaper and published through the online Record China website showed only five not fully booked from April 1-28. Lines are already long at immigration counters in Narita and Haneda International Airports, and it's only going to get worse as the season peaks.
This is a tricky event to plan a trip around for both tour operators and individual travelers. Weather plays a critical part in both the date the flower front hits on its journey from south to north, and how long the fragile blossoms remain. Arrive a few days too early, and it's bare trees. A few days late, and they're sweeping up the petals.
Record crowds are expected at Tokyo's prime cherry blossom viewing spots in Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyoen park, along the Imperial Moat (Chidorigafuchi) and the Meguro River. Visitors hoping for solitary contemplation among the fluffy pink clouds of blossoms are in the wrong city -- especially this year.
Low cost airfares by Japanese domestic carriers to regional airports (see my Huffington Post blog post on cherry blossom travel) and affordable Japan Rail passes just for foreign visitors are encouraging independent travelers to get out of Tokyo and chase the pink wave north or south.
Not everyone is here just to admire the blossoms. Chinese tourists are aggressive shoppers and the biggest spenders among Japan's inbound visitors. A Consumption Trend Survey for October to December 2014 by the Japan Tourism Agency (JTA) showed the average Chinese visitor dropped around 157,000 yen per person ($1311) just on shopping. Actually the average is deceiving. According to statistics assembled by Yahoo News Japan, that spending increased to around 200,000 yen ($1666) in February. Japanese have even invented a term for this tourist spending phenomenon -- Bakugai -- exploding sales!
If you're heading for Tokyo this April, check out my guide to your best hanami experience -despite this year's crowds - here in Huffington Post.