>Japan at your doorstep

>An annual celebration of spring proves that you do not have to travel the world to experience a new culture.

by Nicolle Morales Kern

The sun shone and warmed visitors as they walked along the cherry groves in front of the Horticulture Center in Fairmount Park. Transported into a world of Japanese culture, 40,000 visitors from the Philadelphia area joined the Japan America Society of Greater Philadelphia (JASGP) in the celebration of Sakura Matsuri, the annual Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival on April 5.

“Now in its 12th year, the Cherry Blossom Festival is a celebration of the change of seasons, the blooming flowers and Japanese culture, society and education,” Sam Malissa, Assistant Director of JASGP said in a phone interview.

Malissa, who has strong ties to the Japanese culture, has worked at JASGP for the past three years and said the meaning of the festival is two-fold: historical and philosophical.
Historically, the Japanese government donated 1,600 flowering trees, including cherry trees, to Philadelphia in honor of America’s 150th anniversary of Independence. The cherry is the national flower of Japan and also a symbol of friendship that the country extends to others.
JASGP, established in 1994, decided to continue with the tradition of giving and maintaining cherry trees in Philadelphia in 1998. A 10 year goal to plant 1,000 trees was set and met by 2007. Most of the trees can be found in Fairmount Park, but there are smaller groves throughout the city as well.

“Philosophically, the beautiful cherry trees only bloom for about two weeks in the year,” Malissa said. “You have to stop and smell the flowers as they will be gone by the end of next week.”

Over the past 12 years the festival has evolved from a two event celebration to a month-long festival, from the beginning of March to April, that includes over 48 events such as Japanese Food Tasting, Sake Fest, Taiko Drumming workshops and many others. The Philadelphia Cherry Blossom Festival is now the second largest after Washington D.C.’s. Culminating in the Sakura Matsuri, adults and children alike enjoyed activities such as face painting, origami, calligraphy, kite making, robot sumo wrestling, and the game of Go while taking in the beauty of Japan’s national tree.

On Forester Stage, the Swarthmore Taiko Drummers captured the spirit and enlivened the soul. Dancers from the University of the Arts introduced spectators to the stylized drama of Kabuki dancing for the first time this year.

“Both groups have been trained by Isaburoh Hanayagi, Professor of Performing Arts at Tamagawa University in Tokyo,” Malissa said.

Hanayagi has spent the past year as Cornell Distinguished Visiting Professor of Swarthmore College. During his time in the United States Hanayagi has been training local groups in the art of Kabuki dancing and Taiko drumming. Hanayagi’s students from Japan have been coming to Philly for the past six years to perform at the festival.
As the fest came to an end, visitors walked around the pond, enjoyed sushi and the band Otokage from Tokyo rocked into the evening.

“It was great to see so many people interested in the culture, enjoying the performers and the cherry blossoms,” Malissa said of the turnout at the festival.

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