Geishas in Japantown

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April 7, 2017

Everything You Need to Know About the Cherry Blossom Festival

With the annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival just around the corner, now is the ideal time to visit San Francisco’s historic Japantown. Festival dates are April 8-9 and April 15-16, 2017 which will mark the 50th year of this festival.

One of only three Japantowns remaining in the United States (the others are located in San Jose and Los Angeles), San Francisco’s Nihonmachi is the cultural headquarters for some 12,000 residents of Japanese descent. It’s like taking a trip to Japan without a passport.

The oldest of its kind in the continental United States, today’s Japantown is concentrated in San Francisco’s Western Addition, within and along Pine, Geary, Gough and Fillmore streets. Earlier settlements were in Chinatown and the South of Market area along Jessie and Stevenson streets were erased in the 1906 earthquake and fire. Japantown is celebrating its 111th anniversary this year. While in Japantown, pick up a Calendar of Events and History brochure at most shops and community organizations.

The 50th annual Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, always one of California's most splendid celebrations, draws more than 200,000 people to a dazzling display of Japanese culture and tradition. Most of the events and activities are free and headquartered at the Japan Center, Post and Buchanan streets. The first Cherry Blossom festival occurred in March 1968 to commemorate the grand opening of the Japan Center.

Cherry Blossom Festival

The grand parade will be on April 16, 2017 starting from the Civic Center area and ending in Japantown. Each year the festival draws hundreds of performers from both Japan and California to give visitors a taste of Japanese culture. The festival features a cultural food area by non-profit groups, arts and crafts, and cultural stage performances at five venues. The festival includes attractions such as the Hello Kitty Café Truck, which will be popular with chibi-chan (little children), and a reprise of Sakura 360 on the first weekend of the festival which will highlight modern Japanese cultural trends.

Lost in Translation?

Visitors to Japantown may sometimes become confused by activities promoted in “Nihonmachi.” We’ve included here 15 words which we think will help you enjoy your Japantown visit more, especially during the annual April Cherry Blossom Festival:

            Anime – an abbreviation of animation which embraces Japanese hand-drawn or computer animation. Much of this movement manifests itself in local street culture and the annual JPOP Summit in July.

            Bonsai – literally, according to Wikipedia, plantings (sai) in tray (bon); this Japanese art from yields miniature trees that can more than 100 years old. Examples of bonsai are positioned throughout the Japantown and Katsura Garden, 1581 Webster St., is known for its selection of bonsai.

            Chanoyu – according to the website, www.chanoyu.com, the word literally means “hot water for tea,” but has been referred to as the “Japanese tea ceremony” for decades. There is a replica of a traditional tea room in the Asian Art Museum and, of course, the tea house located in the heart of the Japanese Tea Garden, originally designed and constructed as part of the Mid-Winter Fair in 1894, in Golden Gate Park.

            Ikebana – Japanese art of flower arranging.

            Karaoke – amateur sing-a-long

            Nihonmachi Nihon translates to Japan and machi is town.

            Mikoshi - Portable Shinto shrine in which a deity or god may reside; borne by an exuberant group of volunteers who raise and lower the shrine (usually large sake barrels lashed together to form several tiers), the arrival of the mikoshi is the climatic moments in the parade.

            Mochi – rice confection made by hand; Benkyodo, 1747 Buchanan Mall, opened in 1906 by Suyeichi Okamura, has been family owned and operated for more than 100 years.

            Origami – the art of paperfolding; Paper Tree located on the Buchanan Street Mall portion of the Japan Center is a magnet for origami fans, offering classes and unusual paper stock. The family-owned business provides decorations for the City Hall tree each year which is covered with thousands of origami cranes.

            Osento – communal bath. The more commonly used term is sento; however, the Kabuki Springs & Spa refers to this service as an osento, one of the few to be found in the U.S.

            Ramen – East meets East in this dish; Japanese noodle soup dish includes Chinese-style wheat noodles basking in a meat- or fish-based broth.

            Sakura Matsuri – Cherry Blossom Festival

            Taiko – taiko drumming is integral to the parade and festivities on both weekends. While the word refers to percussion instruments, the most memorable are roughly the size of a large wine barrel.

            Udon – thick wheat flour noodle used in Japanese cuisine.

Where is Japantown?

Japantown is bordered roughly by Geary Boulevard between Laguna Street (east), and Fillmore Street (west) and a stop on San Francisco’s 49-Mile Scenic Drive. Look for the bright red banners adorned with cherry blossoms and the Peace Pagoda which rises from the central plaza of the Japan Center.

Transit Tips

Public transit options include the 38 or 38R Geary, 2 Clement or 3 Jackson Muni buses from downtown San Francisco; for information visit 511.org. There are two indoor parking garages in the Japan Center. Entrances are located on Geary between Laguna and Webster, Post between Webster and Laguna and also on Fillmore between Geary and Post. Parking can be limited on festival weekends.

Tour Tips

Free guided tours of Japantown are offered by City Guides. “Japantown, Urban Renewal and the Fillmore District” tours begin at Buchanan and Sutter streets, near 1747 Buchanan St. Delving into the history of displacement during WWII, urban renewal and the birth of the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District, the tour is offered year-round. Visit website for dates and times. There’s also a great DIY tour: the Japantown History Walk. The self-guided walk covers approximately 10 blocks and consists of 16 interpretive signs offering insights into the community’s first 100 years. If time permits set aside time to visit the National Japanese American Historical Society which has two permanent locations: Japantown Peace Gallery, 1684 Post St., open Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. and the first Saturday of the month, noon-5 p.m. and a second location, the Military Intelligence Service Historic Learning Center, Bldg. 640, 640 Old Mason St., Presidio of San Francisco, Saturday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m. This site is the original home of the Fourth Army Intelligence School, which secretly trained Japanese American soldiers in Japanese military language during World War II.

More Reasons to Come

Even if one should happen to miss this double weekend Japanese confection, there is no reason to despair. Still ahead are the J-POP Summit, September 9-10, 2017 at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, Japan Film Festival, July 22-30, 2017 at the New People Cinema and the Nihonmachi Street Fair, Aug. 5-6, 2017.

Photo by David Yu / CC BY-NC-ND

THE GUIDE TO THE 2017 CHERRY BLOSSOM FESTIVAL

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