Cherry blossom festival at Brooklyn Botanic Garden presents Japanese culture to thousands of visitors. (Photos: Sal Romano)
By SAL ROMANO
Over 70,000 fans of Japanese culture gathered this weekend at the 32nd annual Sakura Matsuri in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to celebrate the yearly blooming of the garden’s cherry blossom trees.
As if the 70-degree weather wasn’t sign enough, the soft pink cherry blossoms, called sakura in Japanese, acted as a reminder that spring is in full effect.
The Botanic Garden celebrated the cherry blossoms’ arrival with a series of activities and events inspired by Japanese culture. It was one of the most attended weekends ever for the festival, according to garden representatives.
In the Puzzle Plaza, sensei taught students the ins and outs of traditional roshe run nm br Japanese strategy board games Go and Shogi. This reporter took on the former, a game of Othello-like black and white playing pieces, stone capture, and territorial dominance, but was ultimately bested in a landslide loss against another newcomer.
At the center of the Osborne Garden, Misako Takashima (better known by her pen name Misako Rocks), a Japanese comics illustrator and children’s books writer whose works have been featured in The Onion, taught children and aspiring artists how to draw characters in the Japanese style. In Japan, comic books are called manga, and character representation is more eccentric when compared to those of western design.
Takashima, explaining the various different hairstyles her young artists can apply to their characters, described the messy but spikey cut as “cool” and “powerful,” the clean comb-down as “the original Justin Bieber,” and the long ponytail look as for someone “mysterious,” whose allegiance to good or evil is difficult to determine. The character’s eyes, she said, are more rough and edgy on males, whereas on females they’re more round and soft.
A tent over, children were invited to bring their newfound manga-drawing skills to sketch to their heart’s content a three-panel comic depicting something they saw at the festival. The drawings were then put up on a wall for all attendees to see. The drawings included cherry blossoms, lollipops, and spring pinwheels.
And there was plenty more “kid stuff,” as the festival labeled it.
In a fenced in, children-only area, staff members from Brooklyn’s Curious Jane, an after-school and summer camp program, helped the children make colorful spring pinwheels; Botanic Garden workers helped craft Japanese-themed rice shakers; and the folks from Taro’s Origami Studio in Park Slope taught the young ones the art of paper folding.
Adults interested in learning the craft of origami attended Jeremy Aaron Horland’s workshop in the Osborne Garden, where they learned how to make a Japanese samurai.
Near the far middle of the garden, artist Jed Henry displayed his “Ukiyo-e Heroes” woodblock and giclée prints. Henry’s prints mix traditional ukiyo-e Japanese style—built on motifs of landscapes, historical tales, the theater, and Japanese pleasure districts—with modern day video game characters.
“Back in the day, in the 17 to 1800s, Japan had a very pop-art art movement called Ukiyo-e,” said Henry. “Ukiyo was a philosophy of basically ‘eat, drink, and be married.’ It was based on the booze philosophy that we are kind of like a gourd floating down a river, nothing is ever the same, everything is going to change, and eventually everything is going to disappear, so you might as well have a good time while you’re going.”
Ukiyo led to a light-hearted movement called Ukiyo-e, which depicted things that people liked and thought were fun. According to Henry, if that art movement were still going strong today, it would be depicting Japanese comics and video games.
Henry’s display at Sakura Matsuri included a “Donkey Kong”-themed ‘Barrel and Hammer’ print, a “Super Mario”-themed rickshaw cart chase, a “Pokemon”-themed animal betting match, and more.
“This is the perfect environment for me,” added Henry, “because people roshe run suede show up and we just start geeking out about the games we grew up on.”
And the geek culture was evident. Walking around the Botanic Garden during Sakura Matsuri, you would find many a “cosplayer” —short for “costume player” — dress up as a favorite character from movies, animation, comics, or video games.
At this weekend’s festival, you might have spotted characters like Asuna from “Sword Art Online,” a Japanese light novel and anime; Hatsune Miku from the SEGA video games, Pikachu from “Pokemon,” and many others.
Performers at Osborne Garden’s “J-Lounge” filled the weekend with entertainment. Anime stand-up comedian Uncle Yo brought his jokes to the table; Kazunori Kumagai, a tap dancer hailed from Sendai City, brought his funky beats; and DJ Saiko Mikan brought the sounds of ‘60s Japan. New performers this year included straight-from-Japan band Zakuro Chindon and the New York-based The Asterplace.
Over at the garden’s Cherry Esplanade main stage, the entertainment continued with classical Japanese dance performances from Sachiyo Ito & Company, kimonos and all; Taiko drummers combined complex drumming techniques with the precision of martial arts; and Samurai Sword Soul brought action-packed sword fighting and martial arts to a mystified audience.
But what goes into deciding which events make the cut?
“We’re looking for things that represent a really nice spectrum of traditional and contemporary Japanese culture,” said Brooklyn Botanic Garden press officer Kate Blumm. “And things that really speak to an element of Japanese art that we think our audience will connect with and enjoy.”
In Japanese culture, the cherry blossom signifies the short-lasting nature of life. It is perhaps for this reason why the most crowded areas of this weekend’s Sakura Matsuri were not the performances, puzzles, paintings, or children’s activities, but the grassy greens under the cherry blossom trees. Attendees sat on towels, relaxed, and gazed at the soft pink flowers, almost as if to remind themselves that yes, spring has arrived. And it’s best to enjoy it while it’s here.