“The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. In their country, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short.” – Homaro Cantu
Story, photos by Sharon Kozden
I remember the moment in high-definition clarity. My face (as I type this) is cherry-blossom pink because a faux pas I made over a year ago was recalled for the purpose of this article’s opening (what I won’t do for readership). I was on assignment, covering another cherry blossom event, when I unintentionally violated the sanctity of tradition. Specifically, I walked onstage at a kimono-dressing demonstration without having removed my footwear and was summarily (albeit gently) chided by the instructor.
Suffice to say my previous transgression was not repeated at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park’s Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, where on a brilliant spring day with nary a cloud in the sky, a press event was held to mark the opening of the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival (Shakura). Press and media were well-represented to document a concise 45-minute schedule that included speakers and ceremonial cultural acts and performances. Mayor Jim Kenney was on hand to officially kick off the week-long festivities by participating in the traditional breaking of the sake barrel, known as kagami biraki.
I greeted the Mayor and apologized for not knowing how to do so in Japanese. He related that he didn’t know the word either. My natural curiosity led me to a research solution. “Konnichiwa” is one of the most common ways to say “hi” or “good day.” Take that to your next cherry-blossom event, and you’re welcome, which will be my next word or phrase to learn.
One of the program’s highlights had Fumiyo Batta of Media, PA, who is a known and frequent presence on the local Japanese cultural scene, assisting young students from the Japanese Language School of Philadelphia (along with Mayor Kenney) in feeding the bounty of koi fish that grace Shofuso’s gently snaking into widening waterways. The ponds are so peaceful and tranquil, dappled and glistening when sun-struck. They emit such mellifluous and genteel burbles. I was spellbound and transported to some blissful reverie. I should reveal that it was Ms. Batta who’d clocked me attempting to shoe-step onto the kimono-dressing demonstration area last year … the “oops” I’d earlier referenced. Fortunately this time, I was a mere face in the crowd, relievedly going unrecognized, undetected.
Much to the many angling photogs’ delight, the polite and poised students complied with requests for snapshots and didn’t mind being posed or posing for the cameras. I was fortunate to capture a duo of young girls caught unawares, gazing and seemingly oblivious to my presence. The girls are absolutely radiant and stunningly attired in kimonos and blossom accessories; they project in the photograph elegance, grace and beauty.
As media arrived to position themselves and their equipment, Kyo Daiko entertained with taiko drums. Next up were a stream of speakers to welcome and provide introductions and remarks. Kim Andrews, Executive Director, Japan American Society of Greater Philadelphia greeted all before introducing Amy Strawbridge with Subaru of America, Inc. Following Amy was City Representative Sheila Hess, who then presented Mayor Kenney. The remarks were succinct and spirited, echoing the beauty and joy of both the event and the day. In keeping with the theme, each speaker’s attire sported pink, whether bold as in the ladies’ dresses and blazers or the more nuanced hue in his Honor’s tie.
Kim Andrews returned to the podium to introduce Rev. Kuniko Kanawa, who performed an exquisite and reverential kagura (literally “god entertainment”), a ritual dance of the Shinto religion traditionally staged by priests at shrines, festivals and the like. Having completed the dance, Rev. Kanawa moved to the podium, where the sake barrel awaited its blessing. Heads were bowed, the blessing completed, and Mayor Kenney and the others onstage raised their mallets to begin the symbolic festival kick-off of the sake barrel breaking, dubbed kagami biraki. Whether it’s breaking a barrel or the cutting of ribbon, the conclusion of either signifies the moment of “game on,” and thus began 2019’s Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival.
Once the ceremonial portion had concluded, I took my time exploring the grounds, which are absolutely breathtaking on many levels, including design elements and the harmonious arrangement of the man-made amid nature that creates and invites a space at once soothing and calming. According to the web site, “Shofuso was again named the third-ranked Japanese garden in North America by the Journal of Japanese Gardening in 2016 …” It didn’t surprise me to discover this ranking; Shofuso is that special. I sensed it immediately without even yet visiting the interior.
Long an admirer of Japanese culture, it was when I learned the concept of Wabi Sabi, which is essentially a way of life that values simplicity while being wholly cognizant of complexity inherent in life and within people, I became even more enamored. A terrific example in which to illustrate the concept (and my particular favorite) is found in the art of kintsugi, where artisans … rather than abandon cracked pottery … fill instead the broken with seams of gold-dusted lacquer, illustrating the cultural belief of beauty found in the damaged, the imperfect. Perfectly imperfect.
Checking out the merch encampment set up near and exit area, I found no examples of said kintsugi; however, available merchandise and souvenirs ran the gamut from fridge magnet-like items to more elaborate and crafted artifacts such as teapots and china.
As we media folk began to exit Shofuso, Kyo Daiko was still on the scene, providing an event-concluding percussive performance, which was a fitting way in which to open as well as to close the ceremonies. Full circle as are many drums in shape. Time to say good-bye until the 2020 festival. I leave it to readers to teach me how to say that in Japanese. “Toodles” is the best I can do for now. Tee.