The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is said to be the second largest festival outside of Washington, D.C. to celebrate the blooming of cherry blossoms; and held at one of three remaining Japantowns in the United States. The first Cherry Blossom Festival took place in April of 1967 during a time change in our society. Young people throughout the United States left home to fight in the Vietnam War. San Franciscans witnessed on-going rallies and war and civirl right demonstrations. It was a time of new ethnic community awareness for groups such as the Japanese Americans.
We have continued the Festival since, joined by hundreds of performers from both Japan and California to give thousands of spectators a taste of the Japanese culture. The five-acre Japan Center, at Post and Buchanan Streets, and the adjacent blocks of Japantown are filled with exquisitely costumed performers and echo with thunderous rhythms of huge taiko drums, ethereal strains of koto music, crackling of boards being splintered by martial artists, and the gentle sounds of tea ceremonies. And, wafting through and above this cultural banquet are the delicious aromas emanating from the Festival’s community-sponsored food bazaar. Thousands of Japanese American performers and behind-the-scenes coordinators take part in the celebration along with scores of participants who come from Japan to join in staging the exhibits, demonstrations, and entertainments. Classical and folk dancers perform both weekends. Experts in karate, kendo (a style of fencing with bamboo swords), aikido, and judo demonstrate their skills, and collectors of samurai swords and armor display their treasures.
There are exhibits and demonstrations of ikebana (flower arranging), sumi-e (brush/ink painting), calligraphy, bonsai (tree dwarfing), origami, and doll-making. Also on the agenda are an arts and crafts fair featuring works with a Japanese theme, as well as activities planned especially for youngsters. Traditional Japanese music will fill the air at recitals spotlighting koto (harp-like instruments), shakuhachi (bamboo flutes), and shamisen (similar to a three-string banjo). There will be taiko and karaoke concerts plus performances by several of the Bay Area’s most popular bands, which will add a contemporary “East meets West” dimension. A two-hour Japanese-style parade brings the Festival to a dazzling close on Sunday afternoon. Colorfully costumed dancers and musicians by the hundreds, modern-day samurai, floats, ladies in exquisite kimonos, taiko drummers, and scores of young men and women carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) will take part in this unique procession which begins at City Hall, Polk and McAllister Streets, at 1 p.m. and winds its way along a fifteen block route to Japantown.
Throughout the Festival, the timeless significance of cherry blossoms (sakura) will be in mind. The blossoms, which stay on the trees for only a few days before the spring breezes carry them away, evoke the unsurpassed beauty of nature and the transience of life.
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