San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival 2015

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…


Daily Prompt: Come Fly with Me – A Summer In Southeast Asia

Hey, folks. Today’s topic on Daily Post involves travel. Specifically, how far you’ve gone from home. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gone on a few flights have come close to the 24 hour mark. If we’re talking sheer distance, my 2002 summer in Malaysia ranks as the highest. According to Google, the length between San Francisco and Kuala Lumpur clocks in at 8,439 miles. That’s just 114 miles further away than my trip to Phuket, Thailand in 2012. Seeing it on a map after all this time is actually kind of mind-blowing.

The journey to Malaysia was long, but it never felt tedious. I don’t know if you’ve ever traveled to Southeast Asia, but I can vouch for their airlines in a totally unofficial endorsement way. Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Dragonair (no, not the Pokemon) have provided some of the best intercontinental flights I’ve ever been on. Comfortable seating with ample leg room. Food that is actually food, as opposed to airline-food-that-slightly-resembles-food-but-isn’t-fooling-anyone. Seat-mounted screens with tons of channels, movies, and video games. And those complimentary hot towels? So good.

Granted, I slept through a good chunk of the flight from SFO to Hong Kong – that part of the trip alone is over 6,900 miles! – but the experience was way better than any other flight I’d been on. The layover in HKG was a good change of pace, though. Here’s the funny thing about HKG. I’ve spent at least 20 hours just in that airport, but it’s all been for layovers. Seriously, I’ve spent more time in a foreign country waiting for a plane than I have actually visiting it. There’s a lot of distractions, though. It was already awesome in my initial visit a decade ago, and it’s gotten even better since. Seriously, read up on it. It’s popular for a reason.

I didn’t get much time to see all of it back then. It was the summer of 2002, and I was just a recent high school graduate. Sure, I’d been to Mexico, Canada, and The Bahamas already, but looking out that gate window was something else. The realization I am in Hong Kong hit me like a truck. I wanted to go out and see it. I wanted to know what was beyond the seemingly endless tarmac. There wasn’t time, though. The connecting flight to Singapore was coming up soon, and getting left behind was definitely something to avoid.

Stepping out of Changi Airport was like stepping off the Apollo Lunar Module. Solid ground, but a completely new place. The first thing that struck me was how clean everything was. The thing most foreigners associate with Singapore is its laws against littering. It’s a very real thing. They don’t mess around with stuff like that out there. Think about that the next time you’re walking down a city street. What also struck me was how warm it was. I’m a Bay Area guy. I grew up with dry, triple digit springs and summers. But this? It was humid. Utterly, ridiculously humid. I was drenched in sweat within minutes. I and the rest of my group piled into our ride and headed for our final destination: Johor Bahru.

If you look at a map, you’ll notice how close Singapore and Malaysia are to each other. They’re separated only by the Strait of Malacca. If you’re from the Bay Area, it’s kind of like driving from San Francisco to Oakland. Only with cleaner roads and way more flora. Oh, and you don’t just pay the bridge toll to cross over; you show your passport, too. You know the tedious process of getting it stamped every time you go through airport customs? Yeah, imagine doing that every time you commute to work. By the time my trip was over, at least half of my pages were crammed with ink.

Speaking of the San Francisco to Oakland comparison, the same goes with the drive to Johor Bahru. Singapore was clean. This was…less so. Now, that doesn’t mean Johor Bahru was some kind of gritty, nasty place. Believe me, there are much worse places to stay. It’s just that Singapore set the bar so high that nothing else would’ve competed. This city felt much more down to Earth and seemed like a cool place to live. The cultural and natural aspects alone were enough to get me hooked. My inner hiker delighted in having a completely new national park to explore. Seriously, Google some pictures of Endau Rompin and try not to be amazed.

I didn’t do a lot of touristy things, surprisingly. After the first week or so, I settled into the daily grind. I was staying in an apartment complex across the street from the waterfront, so I had a great view of the ocean…and an immense selection of seafood. I’ve always loved fish, so this was like a godsend. Shark meat. Fresh tuna. Fried baby octopus. I could go out around sunrise and buy a cheap breakfast from the fishermen at the docks. You ever have freshly-caught crab for breakfast? Now that’s a guilty pleasure. Oddly enough, I did manage to visit one supposedly American-tailored restaurant. It had a crab pizza named – I jest you not – the Fisherman’s Wharf.

How’s that for irony?

Oh, side note: I went to a Malaysian McDonald’s once. I try to visit one whenever I’m in a new country. There was a really cool underground one near the Arc de Triomphe. HKG has stupendously efficient one as well. The one I tried in Johor Bahru surprised me because of how…well, how professional it seemed. I don’t know about your local franchise, but most of the ones in my town seem like absolute last resorts. But this? With its outdoor cafe, stylish decorations, and attentive staff, you could have mistaken them for upper class dining. A shame their McPorridge (seriously) never made it stateside.

Seafood aside, it took a little while longer to adjust to the rest of the daily grind. The way some of the shopping centers were set up by floors, I could get my groceries, peruse a bookstore, catch a movie, and go bowling all in the same building. Convenient, if totally different. The apartment was large enough that I had my own tiny bedroom. Just enough room for a mattress, my bags, and a chair. A single window and a door. Nothing else. It was fine. You don’t need lavish hotels to travel comfortably. All I needed for my day was a good book, a travel journal, and the sound of the rain. It did take a few tries to get used to bathing, though. To anyone that has a shower with hot water, try living a few months with only a bucket, faucet, and cold water as your primary source of hygiene. You’ll start to appreciate what you have a lot more.

The weeks drifted by. I went to a few other places, including Malacca City and Macap. If you think traffic in the states is bad, try going on a road trip in Malaysia. Not so many cars, but way, way more motorcycles. Driving around the country had an almost surreal quality to it; the roads were modern, but they were surrounded by lush rainforests. It was one of the starkest juxtapositions of mankind versus nature that I’d ever seen. The road trips culminated with one final destination: The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. It didn’t take that long to get there, but the seeing that location was something else. The Petronas Towers were the tallest man-made structures on Earth until Taipei 101 was finished. Nearly 1,500 feet high, it’s one of the greatest architectural achievements of the 20th century. Read up on its design sometime and be amazed. You could see the towers from miles away. Miles. It still dwarfs every building around it. When I reached the foot of the massive structure, I had to literally bend over backwards to see the upper floors. In that single awe-striking moment, I was standing 8,439 miles from the nearest thing I called home.

The trip back to America was relatively uneventful. It was essentially the reversal of how I entered; the same airlines, airports, everything. The only difference was that this time, I was traveling alone. Imagine that. A young, sheltered California-bred man sent a third of the way around the world on his own. Some people can’t handle that kind of travel. But when I wearily stepped back into San Francisco, I realized for the first time that I wanted nothing more than to do it all over again.

And I have.

Where do you want to go?