By Rob Abruzzese
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The cherry blossoms are blooming, which means that it's time for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s 33rd annual Sakura Matsuri Festival. The festival, which celebrates traditional and contemporary Japanese culture, will take place this weekend.
“This is getting bigger and bigger every year,” said Yoshi Amao, a samurai sword master and the master of ceremonies for the festival. “People enjoy the beautiful cherry blossoms and the high-quality performances and also a very fun emcee. People are so, so energetic and I do some interactive activities with anyone that wants to enjoy it.”
Cherry blossoms are native to the Himalayas, but now grow in temperate climates all around the globe. They came to the United States in 1912 when Japan gave 3,020 trees as a gift. The first trees were planted in Sakura Park in Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden planted its “cherry walk” in 1921. It is one of the largest collection of cherry blossoms in the country, and the festival, too, is one of the largest of its kind.
“This festival started out as a traditional Japanese festival, which is still an important part of it. We have tea ceremonies and many very beautiful and ancient traditions, but what has happened in the last few years is that we’ve brought contemporary traditions as well,” said Anita Jacobs, director of Public Programs at BBG. “Part of that is, in the last five years, we’ve started a cosplay fashion show. We do J-pop and J-rock. It’s a good mix.”
The Sakura Matsuri festival takes place this Saturday and Sunday and will feature over 60 performances that demonstrate and represent Japanese culture, including martial arts masters, manga artists and traditional Japanese drummers.
“My favorite part has been that the programming we do here inspires our visitors to come dressed for the day,” Jacobs said. “So what’s been super exciting has been that many people come in traditional kimonos, [and] many come in wacky Japanese contemporary fashion and cosplay. The audience has now become just as exciting as the performances themselves.”
Last Tuesday, a group of lucky garden visitors got a chance to see a preview of the festival that included performances by Amao, Taiko Masala (a Brooklyn-based traditional taiko drumming and martial arts ensemble) and others.
“This is about Japan’s origins,” said Hiro Kurashima, the Taiko Masala drum leader. “The history goes back over 600 years and we keep that tradition. We kick it off by drumming. People hear the drums and they can’t help but be drawn in and celebrate.”
“One of my favorite things is seeing a teenager with blue hair, horns and a tail running around and they see someone in a traditional kimono and they stop and say, ‘that’s beautiful’ and start talking,” Jacobs said. “There is a wonderful connection between really traditional arts and crafts and audience members and really contemporary kids.”
The festival has become a Brooklyn tradition over the past 33 years. The BBG has kept the most popular and iconic performances each year, but always includes new shows to keep things fresh.