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“Underneath the cherry tree” Visiting the San Francisco Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival

 Japanese festival food under the blossoms

by Alexander Quebec

On a rainy Saturday Afternoon, I along with others on my bus, made my way to Japantown on the Muni Bus 38 Line, curious as to the yearly festival that takes place in the Japantown of San Francisco. One of the last three remaining Japantowns in California (the other two being in Los Angeles and San Jose), the event is intended to be a showcase of Japanese culture.

An annual tradition across Japan, the cherry blossom festival commemorates the blossoming of the cherry blossoms in their magnificent light pink and red blooms. Originally a simple affair, it had evolved over time to include picnics and small gatherings of friends and family to large, later becoming festive functions complete with different vendors selling food and souvenirs.

I arrived in Japantown not far from where I was staying. Walking along a crowd of families and young anime cosplayers (In case you didn’t know, Cosplay is a term describing the act of wearing a costume from a specific anime, video game, manga or other related franchises) and walked into the main plaza, flanked by the most recognizable landmark in the area, The Peace Pagoda. Japantown, encompassing six city blocks, is the largest of the three Japantowns currently in California, but the main area the event was being held was quite small and walk-able by any means. For my first visit, I decided to check out Kintetsu Mall for lunch.

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The place was quite packed with festival go-ers. Crowds of Cos-players, families and teens flocked to the many shops and restaurants located in the western wing of the mall. CaliPlate is dedicated to food, and this place had a decent selection of Japanese restaurants to choose from. Going off of a friend’s recommendation, I decided to check out May’s Coffee Shop for some Taiyaki, a small, fish shaped cake made with pancake batter, filled with a sweet, azuki red bean paste or other sweet filling.

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“Come here little fishey, I have a surprise for you”

I chose a chocolate filled taiyaki as well as a banana chocolate filled one. Both were fresh from the waffle maker and had a great ratio of cake to filling; i didn’t feel like I was eating cushion foam, but I didn’t feel like I was eating a melted chocolate bar either. The banana-chocolate filled one was equally delicious and I even bought a few extra for later on. I also downed a few Spam Musubi’s and some Tonkatsu Donburi.

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“it’s what’s inside that counts, right?”

After lunch, I looked around for some more festival food to devour. There’s an expression in Japan that’s popular during the Cherry Blossom festival, Hana yori dango, roughly translated to “dumplings over flowers”. Walking along the restaurant row, I saw restaurants featuring more traditional dishes in the popular traditional manner of a plastic copy in a window display.

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Balls*childish giggling*. (Making the Takoyaki balls)

I saw a crowd ordering Takoyaki from a window side counter. 6 for $5, doesn’t sound bad. I decided to give them a shot. After chatting with the girls to find out any other places for me to check out, I got my takoyaki balls filled with Octopus

Here was the end result

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There’s food under all those fish flakes

I have to admit, I wasn’t a fan. Being a part of the team here, you’re expected to take a lot of risks and go out on a limb to try new stuff. While the batter was delicious, I couldn’t get over the fish flake flavor and the chewy octopus texture. I ended up giving them to some other guys I shared a table with at the festival.

Afterwards, I decided to check out the eastern building of the complex, which was host to some of the cultural events going on during the festival. There were these young ladies performing a traditional dance.

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Cultural dance at the Cherry Blossom Festival 

After checking out some of the performances, I set out to explore more. From this experience, I learned to really check out a place before you start eating, as I found the food tents I was searching for earlier on a far off corner of the festival. While most of the offerings were common American staples (BBQ, Popcorn, etc.) I did happen to find more unique offerings, such as non octopus Takoyaki and more Spam Musubi, but after eating my way through the festival, and the need to get ready for my friend’s dinner going on later that night, I decided to pack it up and return to the hotel.

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The promised land…I was just a meal short of enjoying it too.

Some things I learned about visiting a culturual festival that I can share with you

  1. Scout the area first, learn who and what is there before you go if you can.
  2. Have a bag ready, lots of places give out free swag, or if you decide to do some shopping.
  3. Remember, it might be a Japanese festival (or whatever country or cultural group is hosting), but you’re in America, for those really wanting to experience the more cultural aspects of the festival, learn to ask questions and be very observant.

In spite of the wet weather, I enjoyed myself. On a nicer day, this would be a great festival for families, otakus (a word for fans of Anime and other elements of Japanese pop culture) cos-players and others wanting to take in the culture and spirit of Japan.

If you are interested in going, there will be another round going on the 16 and 17th of April. The event is free and open to the public. There will also be a grand parade on the 17th Click here to get more information

Have you gone to the Festival? Are you planning on going? Are there any festivals we should be checking out in the future? Let us know in the comments below.

 

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