Hey, folks. If you’re into Japanese culture, festivals, or botany, chances are you’ve heard of the Hanami, more commonly known in the West as the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Most associate it with the events in Washington DC or Macon, but San Francisco’s tradition has been going strong for almost five decades. I happened to be in the Bay Area this year – my travel months usually fall between April and May – so I decided to go for the first time. The festival lasted two weekends in a row, but that wasn’t enough time to do everything; I settled for going each Saturday and seeing what I could. The results were mixed, but it was an awesome experience overall.
I hadn’t been to Japantown in a couple of years, so I’d forgotten how much of a walk it took to get up there. It’s certainly BART-able; I’m in decent shape, so the 1.5 mile trek (most of it uphill) was a nice warmup. The official website even recommends that you take the bus, but I wanted to save money and get some exercise in. However, it’s understandable why everyone just takes public transit; if you’re going to Japantown from the Financial District on foot, you have to go through the city’s dreaded Tenderloin. You’ll never see such a sudden and drastic change in atmosphere. Just a few blocks from the flashy lights and trendy stores of Union Square, there are boarded-up windows, seedy bars, crime, prostitution, and more homeless than you’ll see anywhere else in the city. Most depictions of San Francisco conveniently overlook this area. Pretty sure those red double-decker tour buses never drive on Turk Street, lest those high-paying visitors see something horrifying and tell their friends. I love wandering the city in my spare time, but I typically make a beeline onto Geary and call it a day. However, the Tenderloin is redeemed by its incredible art; it’s so easy to stumble across a gorgeous mural and varied architecture.
Japantown was another story entirely. I was used to seeing the place on weekday afternoons; a peaceful, quiet district that happened to house every geeky anime and video game thing I could want. But this time, the square surrounding the Peace Pagoda was crammed full of people. I don’t like crowds; they feel suffocating and draining to me. There were hundreds of people sitting in rows of chairs, or standing at the nearby railings, all eagerly anticipating the drum performance by the iconic Taiko Dojo. I couldn’t find a good place to see the show, so I decided to wander. What struck me wasn’t just the amount of people, but how many of them were cosplayers. I’ve never been to Comic Con or any major geek convention, let alone seen these dedicated and creative fans in person. For example, I immediately bumped into this familiar fellow:
That’s aside from Junior from RWBY, No-Face from Spirited Away, Mega Man, a mini Gundam, Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill, a couple Harry Potters, and at least three Soras (one even had a metal keyblade!) from Kingdom Hearts. Not to mention all the people in their gothic and sweet lolita outfits; I think that fashion style rocks, and I wish I were confident/pretty enough to pull off the look. Or any cosplaying for that matter; I actually considered going as Vincent Volaju, but the weather was too warm for a trench coat. I also didn’t to come off as one of those creepy guys that stalks and takes pictures of these coplayers at conventions, so I kept my photography to objects and performances. It was probably to my detriment, though; I was surrounded by literally thousands of other geeks, but I didn’t actually talk with anyone. I thought I’d gotten a handle on this whole introversion thing. Sigh. There’s always next year…
I spent most of the time exploring some old haunts at the indoor Japantown Center. If you’re a local and don’t like buying your anime/gaming memorabilia online, chances are you’ll find your products here here. Japantown Collectibles has a decent selection of models (though Ying’s Hobbies in Chinatown has a vastly superior Gundam selection), as well as several Play Arts Kai and other statues. Japan Video & Media is essentially a one-stop shop for anime DVDs, as well as decent variety of plushies, posters, and other memorabilia. That also apparently includes body pillows (?!) printed with famous characters; I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned having a childhood crush on Sailor Mars, but nowhere near the point of cuddling up to a picture of her! There’s also the Kinokuniya Bookstore, which has an absolutely massive selection of Japanese texts, both translated or otherwise. The lower floor is dedicated to manga and gaming; while the average Barnes & Noble stocks a shelf or two of manga at most, this was practically an entire store’s worth of comics! Their art book selection is impressive as well. I was sorely tempted to pick up UDON’s Street Fighter and Bayonetta works, but I kept my temptation in check. These places are a wonderland for collectors and hardcore fans…but they don’t come cheap. Anime products released stateside – DVDs in particular – suffer from serious price gouging. After making a mental wishlist, I left the stores without regret.
Instead, I focused on the artist’s alley. It wasn’t huge; there were a dozen booths spread out near the shopping center’s main staircase. These folks know their clientele; everyone was selling some kind of print, pin, or bead sprite depicting characters from popular series. Stuff from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Metal Gear Solid, Sailor Moon, Persona 4, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy…the characters go on and on and on. I looked at each table three times before settling on a signed print of this Okami work by Wenqing Yan, famously known as yuumei on DeviantArt. I’ve been a fan of her work for years, but I never thought I’d ever see her in person. On the way out, I stopped by Katachi and bought a nice, sturdy machete. I’d been meaning to replace my old one for months, so I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. The 25” blade was too large to fit in my backpack – the hilt was stick out of the back – but thankfully no one on BART noticed.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the booths outdoors. There were plenty of other local artists (The Bamboo Whisperer is still my favorite!) but I focused on the food. There was a small – but quite successful – vendor selling freshly cooked Japanese cuisine. It was a selection of edamame, takoyaki, and karaage. I’m not a foodie by any means, but their karaage was easily the most delicious thing I’ve had this year. I’m actually tempted to look up some recipes. The most popular food seller, however, was the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. Seriously, that’s a real thing. They were selling a small assortment of boxed desserts, including donuts, mini cakes and, macarons, as well as bottled lemonade and t-shirts. The line for this smorgasbord of sugary adorableness stretched down – and through – most of the street. There were at least a couple hundred people in front of me; after 20 minutes and only a few feet, I gave up. I managed to score a free box of Pocky from another truck, so it wasn’t a total loss.
After enjoying a performance by the Nihon Buyo Kiyonomoto and picking up some commemorative stamps for my grandmother, I made the mistake of leaving early. I did not want to walk back to BART at night. Also, I somehow missed the post that showed the full schedule of events; I didn’t know that I was missing out on kendama and ikebana demonstrations, the cosplay chess tournament, and tea ceremonies. After realizing my mistake later on, I was determined to return and see more.
Armed with a schedule and a map, I returned to Japantown on the 18th. I stopped long enough to watch another Taiko Drum performance, but kept walking. I skipped all the stores I’d visited previously – though I did pick up two boxes of Harajuku Mochi Chocolates at Nippon-Ya – and made a beeline for the Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibit at Issei Memorial Hall. There were at least a couple dozen entries from the Marin Bonsai Club, the Yamato Bonsai Kai, and a few other groups. I did at least five laps around that room, taking as many shots of those amazing plants as I could. Growing a bonsai requires patience and dedication, so I was stunned by the 60-year old Chinese Elm on display. The exhibit deserved far more attention; I’m glad to be one of the relative few to enjoy it.
Afterwards, I headed upstairs just in time to catch the Iaido demonstration by the Nishi Kaigen Iaido Dojo. I’ve played enough video games to recognize the martial art on sight, but it’s so much cooler in person. An average person might be able to awkwardly swing a sword, but these practitioners were unbelievably smooth and precise. It was going well until one of the performers tore his foot on a staple in the stage’s carpet. I was standing off to the side, so I got a glimpse of the bloody injury before the man was carted off by the EMTs. In order to save face, the remaining iaidoka had the audience push the chairs back, then continued the show in front of the stage. They were followed by the Azama Honryu Seifu Ishisenkai USA and Kinuko Mototake Dance Academy, a troupe that specializes in traditional dances from Okinawa. Their performances were slow and relaxing – an older fellow sitting next to me kept falling asleep – but quite elegant. I’ll have a few more videos for them up soon. On the way out, I stopped by the Washi Ningyo table at the back. There were several detailed paper dolls (including a miniature taru mikoshi!) on display. The owner invited me to an upcoming workshop, but I haven’t decided to go yet.
On the way out of the building, I stumbled across a shodo (aka Japanese calligraphy) demonstration. I’ve never studied it, so it was fascinating to watch this group of elderly folk make beautiful art from just ink and paper. The placement of the characters, the shading, the coordination involved…it was so good. And to think, this is initially taught as a mandatory elementary school subject. Do we even teach cursive to American grade-schoolers anymore?! Once the show was over, the calligraphers gave out personalized trinkets to the kids. I sheepishly asked for my name on a fan, which is now proudly displayed on my desk. Coincidentally, I came across another shodo desk when I went back through Osaka Way. Not only did they give me a second personalized fan, but a mini wall scroll with “Knowledge” painted on it. I also stopped by Forest Books; it doesn’t have Kinokuniya’s huge selection, but focuses more on Asian culture, history, and politics. Definitely worth visiting if you’re looking for more obscure texts.
With the day winding down, I had one more objective: the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. This was my last chance to pick up some desserts for my relatives, and I didn’t want to come back empty-handed. The line wasn’t so bad this time; about 20 minutes later, I walked away with a box of donuts, five macarons, and a cute little tote bag. Yes, I truly earned the swagging rights. I also stumbled across the real mikoshi on my way out; unlike the doll version, this one was decked up out intricate patterns and golden trimmings. A few kimono-clad women were offering people some free sake, but they ran out by the time I walked over. I don’t drink – sparkling cider is the strongest beverage I’ve tried – but it would’ve been an interesting experience. On my way out of the Peace Plaza, I stopped to watch the UC Berkeley Yosakoi Group perform their dances. Such a strong, awesome show was the perfect way to finish my day.
As I walked back down Geary and onto BART, I thought about what I’d seen over the last two Saturdays. The Cherry Blossom Festival is an interesting blend of both old and new; the younger folks enjoying their modern forms of art, while still appreciating the traditions of their predecessors. With all the manga, anime, and games permeating Japanese pop culture, it’s so easy to overlook how they were influenced and inspired by the creativity of the older generations. Not everyone cares about the humanities, but judging by the turnout, they’re won’t be forgotten any time soon. Hopefully next year’s festivities will be even better!
Oh, and one last thing. In a bit of irony, I didn’t see any cherry blossoms at the festival. Due to the stormy weather we had a couple of weeks back, all of the usually gorgeous trees were completely bare. There were more cherry blossoms in my front yard, for crying out loud! There’s always next year…