Photo/IllutrationBus passengers enjoy the "somei-yoshino" cherry blossoms in the Yonomori district of Tomioka, Fukushima Prefecture, on April 6. (Yasuhiro Sugimoto)

  • Photo/Illustraion

TOMIOKA, Fukushima Prefecture--For decades, locals have flocked to a 2-kilometer stretch of cherry trees in the Yonomori district here for "hanami" celebrations under the blossoms.

But the tunnel of cherry blossoms has been off-limits since the March 2011 nuclear accident at the nearby Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

And while an evacuation order for about 90 percent of Tomioka was lifted in spring 2017, most of the Yonomori district still remains designated as a difficult-to-return zone because of high radiation levels.

Town officials pleaded with the central government for an exception to allow former town residents to once again enjoy the Yonomori cherry blossoms, and their wish came true on April 6.

For the one-day only occasion, buses packed with both former residents and others were allowed to navigate under the "sakura" tunnel. In the past, hanami visitors were stopped at a barrier designating the start of the difficult-to-return zone and had to gaze at the trees from that point.

The fair weather and higher temperatures on April 5 helped the blooming of the sakura.

Eight buses transported Tomioka evacuees now residing in Iwaki and Koriyama in Fukushima Prefecture to the Yonomori district, while another 10 buses at the site for the cherry blossom festival in Tomioka were on standby for others who wanted to travel down the tunnel.

A 78-year-old woman who evacuated to Iwaki took one of the buses and said nostalgically, "I remembered the sakura I saw in the past with my grandchild."

A 72-year-old Koriyama resident who came to see the cherry blossoms said they were "spectacular."

Immediately after the 2011 nuclear disaster, all Tomioka residents were ordered to evacuate. That put a stop to the long tradition of strolling to view the Yonomori cherry blossoms as part of the annual cherry blossom festival.

The cherry trees were planted around 1900 and eventually formed an arch over the street.

Former residents frequently let town government officials know how keen they were to once again view the cherry blossoms.

For their part, town officials concluded that the warm feelings held by residents for their community might encourage more people to return.

As of April 1, only 922 people, or less than 10 percent of the registered population, resided in Tomioka.

"The town that was once deserted is slowly regaining vitality," said a hotel owner in Tomioka. "I hope visitors can feel that vitality through the viewing of cherry blossoms at Yonomori."

The Tomioka town government has designated about 390 hectares of the difficult-to-return zone, including the Yonomori district, as a priority area for reconstruction and resuscitation. They are hoping the evacuation order will be lifted by spring 2023 if further decontamination work continues and social infrastructure is revamped.