Yamazakura blooms keep hope alive in Tohoku

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Members of a group to reconstruct Okumatsushima repot yamazakura nursery trees.

By Takayuki Narumi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterHIGASHIMATSUSHIMA, Miyagi — The pastel pink of yamazakura wild cherry blossoms vividly contrasts with the blue of Matsushima Bay every spring in the Miyato district of Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture.

The district is part of the Okumatsushima area, which is located at the east end of Matsushima, one of three major scenic sites in the country. The area is said to be the northern limit of where yamazakura bloom in Japan, and Miyato residents grow nursery trees, bringing together people who wish to preserve this fantastic view.

Miyato suffered massive damage from the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, with about 250 houses struck by the disaster, prompting people to move some structures to higher ground.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Michio Okamura, an honorary director of the Historical Museum of Jomon Village OkuMatsushima, took the initiative to grow more of the region’s yamazakura as a symbol of disaster reconstruction.

Yamazakura is the most typical wild cherry blossom from the Kyushu region to Miyagi Prefecture, and its northern limit is said to be around Matsushima Bay. Okamura, 69, has excavated shell middens in the district since his 30s and has always been fascinated by the trees grown in Miyato.

A year after the earthquake, Okamura saw yamazakura blooming all over the mountains that overlook the bay. He felt strongly that he wanted “to share this scenery with many people.”

About 20 people from in and outside Higashimatsushima agreed with Okamura’s idea and formed “the group to reconstruct Okumatsushima.”

The members collected yamazakura seeds, which can be found in the wild, and then grew them into sprouts. In March 2014, nursery trees stretching 1.5 meters tall were planted in two locations in the district. Since then, a tree-planting festival has been held annually around March 11.

The historical museum posted the group’s activities on its website, and the group has received donations from more than 300 people throughout Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa Prefecture, helping it plant 130 trees so far. This year, 90 people participated in the planting festival — almost twice as many people as the first festival. Many came from outside Miyagi Prefecture.

One of the participants is Kazunori Seito, director of the Yachiyo city local museum. He visits Okumatsushima as often as he can. In April this year, Seito and local residents appreciated the first blossoming of the trees they planted.

“I’d like to preserve people’s bonds nurtured through yamazakura for years to come,” said Seito, 70.

Miyato resident Tetsuo Sakurai, 80, cultivates nursery plants and tends trees.

“I’m looking forward to meeting people in the same camp from outside the prefecture, to bond over drinks and exchange local specialty gifts,” he said.

The number of nursery trees the group cultivated has reached about 3,000, and those grown to between 30 and 40 centimeters long will be given away for free from this year. Those wanting a tree must go to the museum — where the group’s office is located — to pick it up, as the givers are “hoping to meet the recipients in person and talk to them, to build long-lasting relationships and also introduce them to what Miyato is like.” Those who receive a tree also need to annually report on its condition to the group.

So far, 55 people have come to the office to pick up trees, all of them from Miyagi Prefecture.

“We want many people to know about Miyato’s yamazakura by dropping by the museum and doing some Matsushima sightseeing,” said Tohoku University Emeritus Prof. Mitsuo Suzuki, who serves as the office’s chief.

It takes a couple of years for the planted trees to bloom.

“Let’s view cherry blossoms with many tourists under trees filled with flowers” is a slogan among group members, who are also looking forward to hearing from people who have received trees when their trees flower.

Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Pref.

Created in 2005 by the merger of two towns, its population as of the end of August was 40,241. More than 1,000 Higashimatsushima residents died as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake, and about 11,000 houses, or 70 percent of the total, were damaged or destroyed.

The city is home to the Air Self-Defense Force’s Matsushima Air Base, and its Blue Impulse aerobatic flying squadron flew across the sky at an air festival on Aug. 27, the first to be held since the disaster.

The city’s basic industries are agriculture, fishery and tourism. The Satohama shell midden, a government-designated historical site that stretches 640 meters wide and 200 meters long, is one of the largest middens in the nation. Human bones and fishing tools from the Jomon period (ca 10,000 B.C. to ca 300 B.C.) have been unearthed here.

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