[Corona ni Makeruna] Lifting of COVID restrictions brings ‘hope’ to businesses

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Ueno Park is one of Tokyo’s most famous cherry blossom sites. After the government lifted COVID-19 quasi-state of emergency measures in Tokyo and 17 other prefectures, Ueno Zoo reopened from March 23 to people who book in advance, and families flock there.

Restrictions were eased on March 21 when all remaining emergency measures were lifted. Since then, restaurants in Tokyo can stay open longer and serve alcoholic beverages. It comes at a potentially lucrative time when people traditionally gather to view the cherry blossoms or hold farewell parties for friends and colleagues leaving for new assignments.

Restaurants that have suffered during the pandemic are hoping to be able to resume operations. At the same time, they must come up with their own measures to prevent the spread of infection.

Despite the easing of restrictions, the Tokyo government remains cautious and asks people to refrain from traditionally popular customs of the season, such as eating and drinking under cherry trees, or holding picnics with water in groups. Signs calling for self-restraint were placed in the park and ropes were placed around cherry trees to prevent people from laying picnic mats.

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Dine with cherry blossoms at Ueno Seiyoken restaurant in Tokyo’s Ueno Park (photographed by Ikue Mio)

Eye Cherry Blossom Themed Recovery Restaurants

However, restaurants are betting on the cherry blossom season, which brings much improved business.

One such spot is Ueno Seiyoken, a Western-style restaurant dating back to 1876, when the park opened and became a fashionable hangout. Here, patio seating with a great view is popular during cherry blossom viewing season. As its manager Hideo Akimoto explains: “The restaurant has been in a difficult situation for two years. It is good news that the government is lifting emergency measures at a time when visitor numbers are likely to increase.

In accordance with the directives of the metropolitan government, the French cuisine section of the restaurant served alcoholic drinks until 8 p.m. and closed at 9 p.m. From March 22, the closing time remains unchanged, but alcoholic beverages are served 30 minutes longer so “customers can drink without worrying about the weather,” Akimoto said.

A Japanese restaurant near the park, Izuei Shinobazu-tei, is preparing dishes and lunch boxes that reflect the cherry blossom season in anticipation of more customers. Their hours of operation maintain the 9 p.m. closing time, instead of extending the hours to 10 p.m. as was the case before the pandemic.

As its store manager, Satoshi Maekawa, explained, “The reduced hours have been maintained for so long that customers have become accustomed to them and return home earlier. Even though we stay open until later, few customers will come.

Restaurants along the Meguro River, where about 800 sakura trees line the street for about 4 kilometers, also count on good deals.

ZEAL Co.Ltd. at Minato Ward, which runs a cherry blossom-viewing cruise on the Meguro River, is staying cautious by reducing the number of seats from 44 to 28 and allowing each guest to bring up to 2 cans of liquor. Still, bookings are said to have increased 1.5 times compared to the same period last year.

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Meguro River

Ryo Katayama, who heads the tourist cruise tourism division, welcomed the lifting of anti-covid restrictions in time for the cherry blossom season. “I’m looking forward to seeing bands that we haven’t seen recently,” he said.

As the Tokyo Metropolitan Government allows businesses to operate longer, it continues to seek cooperation to maintain preventive measures, such as limiting the number of guests to 4 per table and staying for up to 2 hours. Seita Okawa, the manager of Yakitori Akira, a grilled chicken restaurant with its main store in Nakameguro, wondered if authorities could enforce such demands, however.

Here, customers can see the double sakura blossoms through the restaurant window, so it’s no surprise that it’s already full until mid-April, the peak of cherry blossom season. The last week of March is also nearly sold out, with nearly 20 groups.

The restaurant will not limit the number of people for parties where customers provide documentation showing they are COVID-free, according to Okawa. But he added: “It’s not realistic to check crowd certificates, and I can’t refuse the booking.”

Even as catering establishments try to regain ground, they are feeling the pressure of soaring crude oil prices and fears that the burden will increase further due to the war in Ukraine.

“Due to the pandemic, the Tokyo government continues to ask for restraint. But I want to do my best to protect the lives of my employees and I feel we have to fend for ourselves,” he said emphatically.

(Read the article in Japanese on this link.)

Authors: Reina Kikkawa, Ayumi Asagami

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