The San Francisco
Cherry Blossom Festival 2019

Where: San Francisco's Japantown  

When: the weekends of April 13/14,  and 20/21, 2019.

This cherry blossom festival marks the 52nd year of celebrating the blooming of the cherry trees, or sakura, in San Francisco.

cherry blossoms blooming in san francisco japantownCherry Blossoms in Japantown

If there were no cherry blossoms in this world
How much more tranquil our hearts would be in spring.

Ariwara no Narihira (825-880 A.D.)

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.  

Kimonos and parasols at the San Francisco Cherry Blossom FestivalSF Cherry Blossom Festival 2018

Event Locations...

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. Even "mochi pounding" ! 

The 2019 schedule hasn't been released yet. Please check back later to see a complete list of all the events and locations.

Last year they created a handy iOS app for the festival to see the schedule and locations of the events when you're out and about. See iOS app to download it. 

cherry blossoms on trees at japan center, san franciscoCherry Blossoms in Japantown Peace Plaza

Highlights of the 2018 Festival 

Taiko Drums

 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 drummers dancing, okinawaDancing Taiko Drummers in Okinawa

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.

You've probably heard these 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.

2018 Taiko Drum Performances: Peace Plaza stage (April 14, at 11:30; April15 & 21, at noon); also in the parade on Sunday, April 22, starting at 1 pm. 


More to see and do...

  • Martial Arts:  demonstrations of karate, judo, kendo and naginata (swordstaffs). 
  • Traditional Japanese Music & Dance:  performances on the the koto (Japanese harp), shamisen (stringed instrument), and Japanese flute. Also, various groups will be performing classical and folk dances: lots of kimonos, fans and parasols! 
  • OrigamiBonsai, Ikebana (flower arrangement), and Tea Ceremonies.
  • Japanese treats: sample sweets and savories at the food booths. On Webster Street, between Post and Sutter.
  • Arts & Crafts Fair: hand-made items and designs, 11-6 each day. Buchanan Street between Post and Sutter.
japantown peace plaza pagoda and cherry blossomsPeace Plaza Pagoda and Cherry Blossoms

A taste of some of the coming performances...

The San Francisco Taiko Dojo at the 2014 Cherry Blossom Festival:


Here's a sample of the Yosakoi dance style that will be performed at the SF festival this year (Peace Plaza, April 14 at 2:15):


You can also hear some beautiful Japanese flute music (Peace Plaza, April 14 at 3:00). Here's a sample of the shakuhachi flute:


And then there's J-Pop...

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.

Highlights:

  • Anime films ( My Neighbor Totoro, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,  Mary and the Witch’s Flower)
  • Cosplay and Tea Lolita (fancy, little-girl dresses) fashion shows
  • Japanese kawaii ("cuteness") song and dance groups
  • Japanese pop and rock groups

Location: mostly on the Sakura 360 stage, on Buchanan Street between Sutter and Bush. See event schedule.


Hello Kitty warning ;-) 

Is it possible to get too much of Hello Kitty? You'll be able to decide if you visit the Sanrio Kids' Corner and the Hello Kitty Cafe. 

Hello Kitty Cafe pink van in San FranciscoHello Kitty Cafe at Stonestown Mall

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 14 & 15, 2018), where there are games and crafts for the kids. On Post Street, next to the Kinokuniya Mall at Webster.

The Hello Kitty Cafe makes a few other appearances around town during the festival.


The Cherry Blossom Parade 

The Grand Parade takes place the last Sunday of the festival, April 22, 2018, 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!

Ladies in pink kimonos handing out free sake at the Taru Mikoshi Shrine, San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival 2018Free Saki at the Taru Mikoshi Shrine

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. More info and registration info, see Mikoshi carriers.

cherry blossom festival signs, san francisco japantown

Fans of Studio Ghibli anime films? 

(My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, etc.)

Cat bus and children sitting in a tree, from My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro

The Cherry Blossom Film Festival 2018: You can see My Neighbor Totoro and eight other Japanese films, anime and non, including Ghibli's new 2018 anime release, Mary and the Witch's Flower.

The theater is in the basement of the New People Building, 1746 Post Street. See film schedule for more info and tickets.

Studio Ghibli also has a film festival in San Francisco this year, with nine of their most popular anime films, including My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, plus Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky.

Their festival runs from April 22 through November 20, 2018, at various San Francisco and Daly City movie theaters. See film festival for more info and booking tickets.


History of Cherry Blossom Festivals

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.

traditional japanese painting of mount fuji and ladies viewing cherry blossomsViews of Mount Fuji, by Hiroshige

Getting to the festival

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!).

Map of Japantown in San Francisco, showing the Japantown malls and bus stops.

By bus...

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...

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.

By car...

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 suggestions...

Note: I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase through some of the links on this page, at no extra cost to you. This helps me provide all the free information I post on this website. 

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 Spot Hero for some good spots. 

A fallen blossom
Returning to the bough, I thought –
But no, a butterfly.

Arakida Moritake (1473-1549)

For a full list of events, locations and a festival map, see the Cherry Blossom Festival Schedule.

Check out the shops, restaurants, hotels, and things to do, in Japantown

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