Successful 48th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival

    Successful 48th Annual Cherry Blossom Festival

    Photos & Text by David Yamaguchi
    The North American Post

    Karakuri ningyo mechanical doll

    The 2023 Cherry Blossom Festival, which took place over the April 14-16 weekend, was remarkably well attended and enjoyable. For example, on Saturday afternoon, the Fisher Pavilion main venue was nearly wall-to-wall with attendees. While it is hard to know exactly why, people’s pent-up frustration, needing to go somewhere and see something interesting in these waning pandemic times, was certainly a part of it. Added to this is similarly built-up fascination with Japan, fostered by many YouTube videos from there across the past three years. With such added exposure comes greater curiosity.

    Several features of the festival were exceptional. First, “karakuri ningyo,” or wooden mechanical dolls, were presented by two craftspeople, Shigeo Tanimoto and Kimiko Hirahata, from Wakayama-ken, south central Japan. Their dolls are based on Edo-Period (1603 – 1867) technology, when Japan had had early exposure to European mechanical technology (AD 1542-1633) but later largely excluded it.

    Enka by Alana YouTube Exploding Star Voice channel

    The number of present-day traditional craftspeople still making karakuri ningyo must surely be waning in Japan today. Accordingly, festival-goers likely saw a vanishing art.

    In addition to the wooden dolls, four performances on the Armory main stage on Saturday afternoon especially impressed me. There, “Enka by Alana” was quite good. Enka are old-fashioned Japanese ballads from the 1950s to 1990s. The closest American comparison would be country western music. Alana, a local person, has her songs down!

    Also, on stage were match demonstrations by “Rain City Sumo,” a local sumo club. Who knew we had a sumo club??! There was something timeless about watching two burly men competing in friendly sport. Not to be left out, Rain City has women members as well.
    The performances of Fujima Ensemble, the local Japanese classical dance school, were also quite good. These are the types of acts one rarely has an opportunity to see, either in Seattle or in everyday Japan. Shamisen player Mari Wilson had clued me into one of the group’s performances in advance.

    Fujima Ensemble Cynthia Yang

    “This year, Miss Cynthia Yang will dance “藤娘(ふじむすめ) Wisteria Maiden” with live shamisen! I’ve been practicing with her for a couple of months, and she is so amazing!

    Her dance is excellent as her costume is eye-catching. Audiences will feel like they are in Kabuki Theater in Tokyo.

    “Fuji Musume is a popular Kabuki play.”

    Lastly, I was moved by the spirited closing performance of the Okinawan taiko group, “Chinagu Eisa Hawaii.” With participants ranging in age from nine to over 80, including parents and children performing together, they beat their drums and danced with their hearts and souls.

    Shigeo Tanimoto and Kimiko Hirahata karakuri ningyo doll makers

    Throughout the festival, what regular attendees could see, from performance troupe to troupe and from nonprofit booth to booth, is the gradual generational turnover of performers and representatives. Former students are the main performers now. Former principals are stepping back to become instructors.

    Rain City Sumo

    Perhaps, the Chinagu Eisa Hawaii narrator explained it best relative to her group’s performance. She translated “chinagu,” an Okinawan word, as meaning to connect, both between generations and between their 30-member troupe in Hawaii and Okinawa.

    Chinagu Eisa Hawaii

    In a similar way, the Seattle Cherry Blossom Festival reconnects Seattle Nikkei with their roots, many in southern Japan. It reaches both outward, to the people of Seattle and inward. In the latter direction, it also helps Japanese American youth feel proud of their heritage.