Just when you thought spring would never come, it did – and with it, a fairly new event that is, well, blossoming into an annual tradition in Philadelphia.
The Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival, which runs from Friday, April 1, through Saturday, April 16, may be on its way to giving Washington, D.C.,’s famous cherry blossom festival a run for its money, according to Kazumi Teune, executive director of the Japan America Society of Philadelphia.
The centerpiece of the event, which the Society created in 1998, is the planting of 100 cherry trees every year in Philadelphia’s expansive Fairmount Park as a gesture of friendship. The planting continues a legacy that began in 1926 when the Japanese government donated cherry trees to the city in honor of the sesquicentennial of American independence.
Gradually, other activities sprang up around the annual planting. "We’ve watched the concept grow and expand, and that’s wonderful," says Teune, adding that this year is the first that the cherry blossom event has stretched into a second week. "The festival is better than ever – a treat for the eyes, the ears, the mind – and the stomach," says Teune, a native of Tokyo who came to Hawaii as a graduate student in political science 25 years ago, and moved to Philadelphia several years later. "It is a way of sharing the Japanese culture with the city and the region, which is the goal of the Japan America Society."
Cherry blossoms themselves are a powerful symbol of Japanese life. Japan’s national flower, the blossoms actually number over 2 million in Japan, blooming in various regions at various times. "They are everywhere. Even schoolyards may have 2,000 trees growing, so that Japanese children grow up seeing them come into bloom," says Teune. So intent are the Japanese on the progress of cherry tree blooms that bloom updates are actually incorporated into the daily weather
So when the Society in Philadelphia sought ways to link the American and Japanese cultures it was natural to think of planting ornamental cherry trees. But even Teune was surprised at the enthusiastic response from the Philadelphia region. "We have so many sponsors who contribute to the purchase and maintenance costs of the trees – it’s been most gratifying."
The varieties of trees that grace Fairmount Park include those with the palest blush petals to those with deeper, more intense coloration, making a walk in the park a lovely shades-of-pink Technicolor experience starting in early spring. This year’s 100 trees have been grown from propagations taken from the 1,400-year-old "Usuzumi" tree growing in the Japanese village of Neo. According to legend, the 26th Emperor Keitai planted the tree (later declared a national treasure of Japan in 1922) to celebrate his ascension to the throne.
The festival offers activities and events ranging from library story hours for children to a tea ceremony, sake and sushi tasting, kite-making demonstrations, and tours of Shofuso, a 16th-century-style Japanese house and garden.
The biggest day of the festival is Shakura Sunday, April 10, at Fairmount Park’s Horticulture Center, at Belmont Avenue and Montgomery Drive, where continuous events include hours of picnicking in the Japanese springtime tradition, with taiko drumming, Japanese dancing, karate, aikido and judo demonstrations, workshops in kite-making and origami folding, even a greeting from Japan’s Cherry Blossom Queen, and, of course, opportunities to taste Japanese food.
Also on Sunday, April 10, the city’s beloved Shofuso Japanese House and Garden will be open for touring from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Affectionately known simply as Japanese House by area residents, the building and grounds of the structure are built in 16th century Japanese style in the West Philadelphia section of Fairmount Park, with an authentic Japanese tea house and ornamental garden also on the grounds. A traditional tea ceremony will be held at Shofuso on Saturday, April 16, at 1 and 2:30 p.m. as part of the festival (the fee is $12).
Tamagawa Taiko. Taiko drumming and dance throughout the week beginning Sunday, April 3, with thunderous drumming, Japanese folk music and dance, performed at various locations throughout the Philadelphia area. Free.
Sake Tasting Festival. Wednesday, April 6, 6 to 9 p.m., Loews Hotel, 1200 Market Street. $45. Pre-register at 215-790-3810 or pay at the door.
Kimono exhibit. Friday, April 8, Philadelphia’s Liberty Place shopping/office complex, 16th and Chestnut streets, noon to 2 p.m. Free.
Lecture on the current state of United States-Japan relations. Monday, April 11, noon, University of Pennsylvania, Huntsman Hall, Room G55, 3730 Walnut Street. Free.
A Sushi Spectacular. Monday, April 11, Roy’s Philadelphia, 124 South 15th Street, with nationally-recognized sushi chefs demonstrating and serving various sushi creations. Seatings at 6 and 8 p.m. $95. Pre-register at 215-790-3810.
Cherry Blossom Festival Gala. The final event of the festival will be a gala at Philadelphia’s storied Union League, 140 South Broad Street, Saturday, April 16, at 6:30 p.m. The gala features Japanese American cuisine and includes "Kagamibiraki," a sake barrel-breaking ceremony and performances of traditional shakuhachi and koto music. Tickets for the fundraiser are $275 per person (proceeds benefit the planting of the 100 cherry trees). Pre-register at 215-790-3810.
In the countdown weeks before the festival, Teune and her small staff at the Japan America Society have been finalizing the last details of this complex festival. But, admits Teune, there is one element that they simply cannot control. Mother Nature has dished out a chilly March, meaning that the blossoms on the cherry trees may be reluctant to peep through. "We’ve done a lot of praying," says Teune, "and we hope that the park will be full of pink blooms. But no matter what happens, we know that for the length of our festival, Japan will seem a lot closer to all of us."
Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival of Greater Philadelphia, Friday, April 1, through Saturday, April 16. For complete information and a calendar listing of all events, visit www.jasgp.org or call 215-790-3810. For more information on Shofuso House visit www.shofuso.com.