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The cherry trees in Tokyo officially bloomed this week, in the wake of news that highly radioactive water was found outside Japan’s earthquake-hit Fukushima nuclear plant. Northeast Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami, and the explosions at the Fukushima plant that followed, have put a severe damper on the country’s peak tourist season. Cherry blossom festivals are still under way, but tourists are hesitant to visit a country coping with death, destruction and now the dangers of radiation.

Tourists elsewhere in the world, though, are trying to make the sakura (cherry blossom) a symbol of hope. In the US, the National Cherry Blossom Festival kicked off last week in Washington DC with a fundraising walk and vigil for the victims of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The annual festival, which celebrates Japan's friendship with the US, began 99 years ago when Japan gave the country thousands of cherry blossom trees as a gift. Now the US is using that gift to help its ally recover from a terrible tragedy.

The festival's president, Diana Mayhew, told news outlets last week that the cherry blossom symbolizes rebirth and renewal. She urges festival goers to remember this as they stand in solidarity with Japan. In Japanese art and poetry, cherry blossoms have also served as metaphors for "the ephemerality of life", said James Ulak, the senior curator of Japanese art at Washington's Freer and Sackler art galleries, in an interview with NPR. The flowers bloom in dramatic fashion, their light pink colour spreading across previously barren treetops to welcome spring. But they fall to the ground just as quickly, only lasting about two weeks. They are beautiful yet fleeting, like life itself.

In Japan, cherry blossom season brings an even more sombre tone. The International Air Transport Association estimated that about 7% of Japan's GDP was meant to come from tourism and travel this year. April is usually the peak of tourist season, but the natural disasters have resulted in cancellations of tours from Hong Kong, China, Russia, South Korea, Thailand and other countries that normally send many tourists to Japan. JAL Airline reported a 25% drop in international passenger traffic, according to the Wall Street Journal. And it's not just the threat of radiation that's keeping tourists away. Northern beach resorts like Okumatsushima were all but destroyed by the March tsunami, staving off domestic tourism as well.

As Japan works to rebuild and recover amid a continuing nuclear crisis, the blossoming cherry trees provide a glimmer of hope. Like the people of Japan responding to crisis upon crisis, the trees stand tall in the middle of chaos. Ryuichi Oda, a local who went to photograph the blossoms in Tokyo this week, summed it up best in an interview with Reuters: "I think the Japanese see the cherry blossoms as symbolizing the need to get back to basics in life."

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

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