Culture, craft and community in full bloom

Opening day at the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival

A girl holding a kakigori with cherry blossoms and food stands in the background
Emily Bi/Staff

While many of us at UC Berkeley spent last Saturday, April 13 donning blue and yellow, fearfully fleeing Oski and repeating “Go Bears!” an inordinate number of times for Cal Day, another lively celebration was taking place across the Bay. Saturday also marked the opening day of the 52nd annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco Japantown.

A breathtaking indicator of spring, cherry blossoms — or “sakura” — and their fleeting blooms symbolize life, death and renewal. As the blooming period for this tree typically lasts only two weeks, the ephemeral pink clouds are a sight to be cherished annually. In Japan, many gather with friends and have parties beneath the cherry blossom trees in a custom known as “hanami.”

The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates Japanese and Japanese American culture and is the second largest festival of its kind in the U.S., second only to the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. Spanning two weekends, the festival concludes in its Grand Parade on Sunday, April 21. This year’s theme is “Kokoro 心 – One Blossom, One Community, One Heart.”

A breathtaking indicator of spring, cherry blossoms — or “sakura” — and their fleeting blooms symbolize life, death and renewal… This year’s festival theme is “Kokoro 心 – One Blossom, One Community, One Heart.”

San Francisco’s Japantown is indeed a place and community with much history to celebrate. The formation of Japantown, or “Nihonmachi,” in San Francisco followed the earthquake and subsequent fire in 1906, after which many Japanese Americans living in Chinatown or South of Market were displaced and began to move into the Western Addition. As Executive Order 9066 resulted in the forced incarceration of this community, it was after World War II that Japanese Americans returned to Japantown to rebuild their lives. Between the East and West malls of the Japan center stands a Peace Pagoda gifted by sister city Osaka in the 1960s.

Get “The Weekender” in your inbox!

Creative writing, deep dives, cultural commentaries and art delivered every Saturday.

As I walked down Post Street last Saturday, smells of vendors selling fresh Takoyaki, Spam Musubi, Kitsune Udon and more foods filled the air. With blooms peeking out of the cherry blossom trees near the Japantown Peace Plaza, thousands filled the streets lined with booths and activities.

While most visitors wore clothes suitable for the warm, sunny weather, some wore traditional yukata and geta and others sported intricate cosplay. Those wearing cosplay had the opportunity to compete in the Sakura 360 Cosplay on the Catwalk Cosplay Contest. Located on Post Street, between Webster and Fillmore Streets, the Sakura 360 Area celebrated Japanese pop culture such as anime and gaming.

I spoke to three of the four judges of this year’s cosplay contest: Mary Leal (Crafty Sorceress), Rochelle Bellew (Momino Cosplay) and Sunhee Jang (CV01 Cosplay). They explained the criteria for judging a cosplay, which include craftsmanship, accuracy, interpretation and stage presence. When asked about the significance of the Cherry Blossom Festival to the cosplay community, Jang, who has been cosplaying for 18 years, explained the special experience of being included in the parade on the closing day of the festival and having a space to see the cosplay community grow.

Leal, who was dressed as Sailor Jupiter, explained how this festival brings her special memories; she recalled dancing the “Sailor Moon” dance in a previous year and the excitement of being a cosplay judge and special guest this year. Regarding her passion for cosplay, she said, “I like it when I learn something new and when I learn about fun little details.”

While there was a plethora of food vendors to choose from, I went to Nijiya Market to pick up obento and mochi. Many other visitors carried “kakigori” (shaved ice) or matcha parfaits from Matcha Cafe Maiko to cool down.

Exploring the many booths and activities in the festival, I took particular interest in the artists and craftsmen who sold and exhibited paintings, jewelry, clothing and more. I engaged in conversation with artist Harumo Sato, whose quirky prints and pins caught my eye near the Webster Street stage. Originally from Japan, Sato moved to New York to study art in 2013 before later relocating to California. She described her art as the product of a multicultural background, stemming from her experience growing up in Japan and studying as an exchange student in France as well as her parents’ professions as historians exposing her to Western and Middle Eastern influences.

Harumo Sato described her art as the product of a multicultural background, stemming from her experience growing up in Japan and studying as an exchange student in France.

Sato explained that she likes to create positive and energetic art with colorful details. Whimsical illustrations of bright fruits, women washing at a Korean bath and “sushi girls” certainly communicated this energetic intent. As this year is her first time participating in the Cherry Blossom Festival, she was happily surprised with the positive response her work received.

“I feel like so many people really appreciate artists, and they also like the story behind each print,” said Sato.

Next to Sato was a booth offering free “shodo,” Japanese calligraphy. Guests could request characters for a name, word, or phrase to be artfully painted with a bamboo brush and ink. I asked for the surname Uehara (上原), from which my mother’s maiden name, Wehara, comes.

In addition to a short trip to Pika Pika, a shop featuring “purikura” — Japanese photo sticker booths — inside the Japan Center Mall West, I spent much of my time at the Cherry Blossom Festival watching performances at the Peace Plaza stage. Performances included karate demonstrations, taiko drumming, music and dancing.

Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai, a group based in Sacramento, concluded their set with audience participation. A crowd formed around the front of the stage as members demonstrated the dance to “Tankō Bushi,” a song about coal mining from Kyushu. An example of bon odori — the dances performed during the festival of Obon — the dance to “Tankō Bushi” mimics mining with motions of digging and pushing a coal cart.

Soon enough, 6 p.m. arrived and the booths that filled the streets began to break down. Even after a full day of festivities, I realized there were still so many things I had yet to see, including the Cherry Blossom Film Festival in New People Cinema, the Queen Program and a number of cultural exhibits and demonstrations.

Although both the cherry blossoms and the festival are only around for two weeks each year, the heart of the celebration, which is the spirit of community, remains constant.

Contact Sarena Kuhn at [email protected].