Celebrating Spring at Japantown’s Cherry Blossom Festival

 

Photo courtesy of Samantha Nguyen. 

Spring opens up many things in life, from the start of a new semester to the buds of cherry blossoms. New beginnings call for celebration, and for San Franciscans it means taking to the streets of Japantown for the Annual NorCal Cherry Blossom Festival.

Sprawling across the Peace Plaza and surrounding streets, the annual festival highlights vendors selling everything from red bean pastries to stickers printed with anime fan art. While shopping is core to the event, live music, activity booths and Japanese cultural organizations add spice to the scene, which culminates in a grand parade. 

And of course, people come to take pictures of the cherry blossom (sakura) trees flowering around the pagoda, which lend their name to the festival.

Cherry blossom viewing, or hanami, traces back to Heian Era (794 to 1185) Japan, when it was crystallized as a springtime tradition among Japanese elites. Older versions of the practice originate in China, where literati families partied under plum blossoms centuries prior. 

According to Gary Gach, professor of Zen Buddhism at USF, “in traditional Japanese culture, cherry blossoms represent the ephemerality of life, its fleeting beauty and the persistence of its renewal.” The significance of the festival lies in its snapshotting of this fragility.

The switch to sakura viewing was a distinctly Japanese iteration. According to the event’s official website, San Francisco’s first cherry blossom festival was in 1968 and started “as a way to preserve traditions, revitalize the local economy, and strengthen the bonds of friendship between the United States and Japan.” 

Celebrated over two weekends in April, the festival encourages people to take photos of the flowers while they enjoy live music, buy from local arts and crafts vendors, eat special foods, engage with cultural organizations and on the final weekend see the parade.

The parade took place on the last Sunday, closing the street and drawing a crowd of spectators that spilled across the sidewalks. Floats, cars and people on foot from a wide array of organizations were represented, from those as formal as the military to cultural spectacles as casual as cosplayers marching to music.

This year, the festival was unusual in that its scheduling perfectly aligned with the trees’ blooming, rather than being a little late to the game as in earlier years. 

Matthew Ruiz, a junior nursing student said, “Every year I’ve thought that it was a nice way to see the community come together.”

For freshman biochemistry major Camila Moutiera, this year was her first time at the festival. She said, “I was laughing most of the time during the parade, I had a really good time. I loved it and I had so much fun being there, and I would totally love to go again next year.”

Next year, the story will be different. Following this year’s celebration, Japantown broke ground for a new renovation project that will uproot the cherry blossom trees until at least 2026, when the Peace Plaza will take on a new appearance following its renovation.

Every spring and its flowers are one of a kind, and 2024 will definitely go down as a spring to remember.

Editor-in-Chief: Megan Robertson, Scene Editor: Inés Ventura

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