FUJIYOSHIDA, Yamanashi -- This year was a race to catch blooming cherry trees all across Japan, and on the busiest day of the Arakurayama Sengen Park Cherry Blossom Festival here at the foot of Mount Fuji, a staggering 17,000 people came to see the flowers.
"This is it, I'm here! Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and a pagoda! This is Japan!"
One such visitor who came to take in the scenery of the park was Waseda University exchange student Tip, from Thailand. She was excited to finally see the scenery she had dreamed about. While there are many famous places in the foothills of Mount Fuji to view the blossoms, Arakurayama Sengen Park has recently become a "holy site" for inbound travelers -- especially those from Southeast Asia.
Another visitor, Pantipa, a physician traveling with three of her family members from the town of Korat in northeast Thailand, was on her fifth trip to Japan. She even came to Arakurayama in the bitter cold of January to see a snow-capped Mount Fuji. She learned about the site five years ago. "I first saw a photo of Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms, and even a pagoda, in a newspaper. This place is really famous in Thai guidebooks and pamphlets" she said, smiling. "Next time, I want to come to see the fall foliage. Coming from a tropical place, the four seasons of Japan are really attractive to me."
The five-story pagoda, which is referred to as a "kyoto" by both women, is called the "Chureito Pagoda" by locals. Its official name is "The Fujiyoshida Cenotaph Monument," and it was built in 1962 to enshrine the spirits of roughly 1,000 soldiers fallen in battle since the Meiji era -- in the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, World War I and World War II. The five-story pagoda is modeled after the tower at Shitennoji Temple in Osaka, but its supports are made of steel-enforced concrete. This means it is not entirely traditional and is therefore not registered as any sort of cultural property.
A local famer explained, "It used to only be visited by the elderly during the summer Bon festival, but recently the number of foreigners coming is steadily increasing."
The city of Fujiyoshida is home to an Sengen shrine, a type of Shinto shrine devoted to the worship of deities, particularly those related to Mount Fuji, including the deity Konohanasakuyahime no Mikoto, who is known as the "cherry blossom princess." A staircase with 398 steps, which can be read "sakuya," has also been built at Arakurayama Sengen Park. Two years ago, a roughly two-week cherry blossom festival was held at the park for the first time, and even an observation deck overlooking Chureito was constructed.
Festival organizer Fujiyoshida Tourism Promotion Service group leader Takashi Miyashita said a photo of views embodying Japanese spring in a single shot had always been used within the city, but it had never attracted visitors from afar.
"The park was just used by local junior high school students for club activities," Miyashita said. "But since becoming popular abroad, we've been bombarded by inquiries. We've also gotten inquiries from Japanese travel agencies asking where the photo was taken."
"The number of tourists has exploded over the last few years," he said, still full of disbelief. "A locally overlooked tourist attraction was hiding in quite an unexpected place."
(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, Opinion Group)