This year is special; this cherry blossom festival marks the 50th year of celebrating the blooming of the cherry trees, or sakura, in San Francisco.
This annual festival is one of the most popular ones in San Francisco; around 200,000 people typically attend, but don't be scared off! The Cherry Blossom Festival is lots of fun, and family-friendly; plenty to see, free entertainment, and tasty food to try.
Much of the action is in the Peace Plaza between the East and West Malls in Japantown. They'll have a stage set up there, and you can watch the drummers, martial artists and traditional music and dance performances there.
Another hotspot will be the Sakura 360 stage, on Buchanan Street between Sutter and Bush, where contemporary Japanese culture (J-pop) will be celebrated with song, dance, anime, fashion, and games.
The rest of the events will be at various locations throughout Japantown. You can see displays of origami, bonsai trees, tea ceremonies, traditional doll-making, flower arranging, and more. For a listing of all the events and times, plus a map of all the locations, see the festival schedule.
The San Francisco Taiko Dojo will be performing all four days of the festival. These are the massive, thundering drums that have been used in Japanese cultural practices for centuries. Originally they served a religious function, driving away evil spirits or bringing rain, but now taiko has experienced a revival with the renewed interest in Japanese traditions.
Taiko drumming demands intense physical and mental training; the art of taiko often contains a spiritual dimension, as well as a demonstration of skill and strength.
The San Francisco Taiko Dojo performing for the festival was the first taiko group in North America, and was founded by Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka in 1968. Mr. Tanaka is still the sensei leading the dojo and his teaching emphasizes the expression of harmony between the ki, or life force and i, mindfulness; this "Tanaka style" produces a deeply moving musical performance. Don't miss it!
We can thank Sensei Tanaka for the experience of the taiko drums at our festival every year. When he arrived in San Francisco in 1967, he went to the SF Cherry Blossom Festival and found it to be rather blah: no loud drumming! From 1968 on, the cherry blossom festival has included the taiko drums.
Sensei Tanaka and the SF Taiko Dojo have a long history of performing with the famous; they've played with the Temptations, Linda Rondstadt, Dave Brubeck, Bobby McFerrin, and the San Francisco Ballet, among others. In addition, you can hear them on the soundtracks of Return of the Jedi, Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff, and Rising Sun. The dojo has also put out 5 albums.
Location: Peace Plaza stage (April 11, 12 & 15; at noon); also in the parade on Sunday, April 16, starting at 1 pm.
J-pop, the collection of elements of popular Japanese culture that includes anime, manga, Japanese fashion, cosplay, pop music, gaming, films, and more, is a big part of the SF Cherry Blossom Festival.
Location: mostly on the Sakura 360 stage, on Buchanan Street between Sutter and Bush. See event schedule.
Here's a sample from Follow My Kokoro...
Is it possible to get too much of Hello Kitty? You'll be able to decide when the pink Hello Kitty Cafe Truck appears at the festival on the first weekend from 10 to 5 each day.
Load up on Hello Kitty mugs, t-shirts, cakes, doughnuts, and other goodies. This was very popular last year. This will be part of the Sanrio Kids Corner (April 8, 9 & 15), where there are games and crafts for the kids. On Post Street, next to the Kinokuniya Mall at Webster.
The Grand Parade takes place the last Sunday of the festival, April 16, starting at 1:00 p.m. at Civic Center. It goes down Polk Street to Post Street, then all the way to Japantown, finishing at Post and Fillmore..
Tip: Not only is the parade a fun and high energy event to experience, this is a great way to see lots of the performers at the festival. In addition to the floats related to Japanese culture, the taiko drummers will be there, along with classical Japanese dancers, folk dancers, martial artists, children's groups, marching bands, cosplay groups, and the newly crowned Cherry Blossom Queen and her court.
The grand finale: one fascinating entry in the parade every year is the Taru Mikoshi. This is a massive, hand-carried edifice comprised of a shinto shrine, plus huge sake barrels, weighing around 1000 pounds. It takes over a hundred people to carry it, and the public is invited to join in!
The Taru Mikoshi arises from an event in which the new emperor celebrated his accession in 1868 by giving big barrels of sake to the leading families, resulting in one huge drinking party in Tokyo. The grateful citizens spent four days carrying the empty sake barrels around the city to show their appreciation.
Want to help carry it? Sign up is 10:00 am Sunday the day of the parade, at 1650 Sutter Street. Come in costume; carriers attend a private party and dinner after the event.
In Japan, the custom of enjoying the viewing of flowers is called hanami, and usually refers to viewing the flowers of the Japanese cherry tree, or sakura. The custom dates back to around 800 AD; since then, flower-viewing parties have been held to celebrate the appearance of the cherry blossoms.
Japanese Emperor Saga of the medieval period started the practice; the custom eventually spread to the samurai and then to the rest of the population.
Feasting, drinking sake and reciting poetry usually accompanied the viewing.
Nowadays, in Japan, the cherry blossoms are greeted with picnics near the trees in parks and the "cherry blossom forecast" is closely watched to time the events.
Cherry blossom festivals are now celebrated all over the world.
The festival is held in Japantown, which is fairly centrally located in San Francisco. Public transportation is easy, and driving and parking is possible if you plan ahead (lots of people!).
The 38-Geary bus will take you directly there. Get off at the stop near Webster, just behind the West Mall. You can catch this from Union Square or along Market Street.
The 2-Clement and 3-Jackson buses will deliver you to the north side of Japantown. The stop is on Sutter at Buchanan, just at the entrance to the pedestrian block of Buchanan.
Taking BART to the festival is pretty convenient. If you get off at the Montgomery BART stop, when you get up to Market Street, head back towards 1st Street half a block (towards the Ferry Building) on Market and you'll find a stop for the 38-Geary bus, which drops you right at Japantown.
Driving here is the easy part. Normally, it's easy to park at the Japan Center Garage under the West Mall in Japantown, but so many people go to the festival, the garage will likely fill up early. Crowds will make parking in the neighborhood challenging, too, and the surrounding area has an above-average crime rate, so you may want to leave your car in a garage or attended lot, sorry to say.
Parking Apps. To make it easy, you may want to consider booking a parking space ahead of time. Less stress, and less circling! I've been using parking apps more and more for that reason. Check out Parking Panda or Spot Hero for some good spots.
Another possibility, more expensive, but a good fall-back position, is to park at the Fillmore Street Annex Garage (operated by the Japan Center Garage), under the Kabuki Theater. Entrance on Fillmore between Geary and Post.
They will have valet parking for around a $25 flat rate, just for the Cherry Blossom Festival (normally hourly self-parking), so the parking prospects will be better than at the Japan Center Garage for this event.
Check out the shops and restaurants, and things to do, in Japantown.