Mary Adamski

Hawaii’s Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Big Isle town celebrates
fragile beauty

Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival

As fragile and fleeting as a kiss, "sakura," cherry blossoms, herald the coming of spring in Japan, bursting into bloom in a glorious display of ethereal pink -- only to wither and drift to the ground just a week later, like snowflakes in the deep of winter.

That something so beautiful exists only for a short time has been the subject of many a poem; first comes the delight of seeing countless cherry trees in spectacular garb, then sadness as their delicate petals fall. The ephemeral nature of the blossoms reflects life, meant to be treasured each moment for it passes all too quickly.

The sakura, or cherry blossom, are a welcome, if fleeting, sign of spring.

Throughout Japan, friends and families gather in parks and gardens to picnic under the flowering cherry trees and celebrate the arrival of spring. The first of these "hanami," or cherry blossom-viewing parties, took place at Kyoto's Shinsen-en Garden in 812 A.D. Lavishly attired aristocrats admired the flowers, while poets composed verses about them and singers and musicians performed.

As time passed, every class -- from samurai to merchants to commoners -- came to enjoy hanami.

Because the islands of Japan are so spread out, sakura bloom over a period of two months, from mid-March on Japan's southernmost island, Kyushu, to May on Hokkaido to the north. Tokyo's peak cherry blossom season usually occurs the beginning of April.

THE BIG ISLAND'S town of Waimea may be 3,800 miles from Japan, but it hosts its own hanami, the Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival, on the first Saturday each February. The festival marks its 10th anniversary this year.

Kite-flying is among the activities at the festival.

Although cherry trees are not native to the islands, about 150 of them bloom throughout Waimea in February and March. The original three trees were planted in 1953 in honor of Fred Makino, the founder of Hawaii's first Japanese newspaper, Hawaii Hochi. They thrived in the cool upcountry climate, and with green-thumbed plant enthusiasts grafting and propagating from seed, there were soon seedlings galore beautifying the community.

In 1972, the Waimea Lions Club placed 20 trees along what is now known as Church Row. Three years later, 50 more trees were planted to commemorate Emperor Hirohito and his wife's visit to Hawaii and to honor the first Japanese immigrants who settled in Waimea more than a century earlier. Dozens more flourished in private yards.

"The cherry trees symbolize Waimea's rich cultural heritage," says Roxcie Waltjen, Hawaii County's Culture and Community Arts Department cultural services director, who's coordinated the festival for nine years. "The town is known for its paniolo (cowboy) history, but it has many more intriguing stories to share. This is just one of them."

Highlights of this year's event include bon dancing, mochi pounding, sake tasting, kite flying, a bonsai exhibit and demonstrations of ikebana and calligraphy. Karaoke, taiko drum and hula performances, and Na Hoku Hanohano award winner Darlene Ahuna top the entertainment lineup.

Traditional Japanese dance is among the activities in the festival.

ACTIVITIES ARE planned at 10 venues throughout Waimea. Parker Ranch's Historic Homes, for instance, will offer a traditional tea ceremony and demonstrations of the ancient Japanese arts of paper making and "oshi-e." The latter consists of pieces of fabric in various shapes, colors and textures that are arranged into what appears at first glance to be a three-dimensional painting.

Cook's Discoveries, which specializes in quality Hawaii-made products, also will feature origami and sushi-making demonstrations, and will welcome Joan Namkoong, author of the best-selling book "Go Home, Cook Rice," for an informative session on rice -- its folklore, how and where it is grown, and tastings of different varieties.

"Most activities are interactive," notes Waltjen, "so if you've never participated in a bon dance or folded an origami bird, this is your chance."

This year's festival is dedicated to Jinho James Tohara and Dolly Loo, both longtime Waimea residents. Eleven years ago, Tohara came up with the idea of launching an event that would celebrate the history and beauty of the town's cherry blossom trees.

Mochi-tsuki pounding is among the activities at the festival.


Since the festival's inception, Loo, executive director of the Waimea Arts Council, has single-handedly produced its souvenir booklet, securing grants to help offset expenses and even paying printing bills herself so that it can be distributed free of charge.

While these two individuals will be in the spotlight, Waltjen stresses that festival planning is a group effort. Partnering with 30-plus private businesses, community organizations and government agencies, more than 50 volunteers lend time, energy and resources to ensure its success.

"I'm proud of how the festival has grown and matured," says Waltjen. "The crafts, food, entertainment and demonstrations represent Hawaii's mixed plate of ethnicities, just like the 5,000 people who come to experience the blooming of the cherry blossoms."


Cherry trees, planted by the Waimea Lions Club in 1972, line Church Row in Waimea on the Big Island.

Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival

Where: Various venues in Waimea town, Big Island

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday

Cost: Admission is free for all events and activities. There will be food and arts and crafts for sale at the Waimea YMCA Park. In addition, the Waimea Outdoor Circle's annual plant sale will be held 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. the same day at the Waimea YMCA Town Hall (formerly the Parker Ranch Kahilu Town Hall).

Of note: Because festival events are scattered all over town, you can park at Parker Ranch Center, then hop the complimentary shuttle provided by Roberts Hawaii to go from venue to venue. Stops include the Parker Ranch Historic Homes, Waimea Arts Center/Firehouse Gallery, Waimea Senior Center, Waimea YMCA Town Hall and Park, Church Row Park and Kamuela Liquor Store. (The shuttle won't stop at Cook's Discoveries, but you can walk to the shop from Church Row Park.)

The festival's free souvenir booklet includes a schedule of events. It is available at all the venues, including Cook's Discoveries, the Parker Ranch Historic Homes, Parker Ranch Store and the Waimea Preservation Association's Visitor Center.

Call: 808-961-8706 or 808-885-3633

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer
and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.

E-mail to Travel Editor

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