This year’s Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival — said to be the second largest of its kind outside of Washington D.C. — will be held in San Francisco on Saturday and Sunday, April 12–13 and April 19–20.
Every year, over 200,000 people gather on Post Street between Laguna and Fillmore Streets to join the celebration that showcases both the Japanese and Japanese American cultures. Historically, the festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the city of Washington, DC. The gift and annual celebration honor the lasting friendship between the United States and Japan, as well as the continued close relationship between the two countries.
Last year, 225,000 people from San Francisco to Tokyo attended to touch, taste, smell, hear and see the culture of Japan. As the number increases from year to year, organizers are anticipating seeing 250,000 for the city’s 47th annual festival this year.
For four days, San Francisco’s Japantown will be host to a wide array of events. The Taisho Koto Group from Osaka will be performing traditional Hawaiian dance, and there will be a demonstration from World Oyama Karate. Japanese musical artist Soulit and the San Francisco Taiko Dojo will perform. There will be displays of ikebana — Japanese floral arrangement — and chanoyu, Japan’s traditional tea ceremony. Competitions will take place in the festival’s golf tournament and the annual Queen Program. Spectators can watch the Grand Parade, and even take part in the Taru Mikoshi — the carrying of a portable Shinto shrine, weighing over 1,000 pounds — and there will be still more.
With so much celebration comes even more planning. The Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival is organized primarily by over 200 volunteers. These are the people that are doing everything from picking up trash to generating social media, all in order to make the festival possible.
“It’s like a small company. All the pieces are important, and without each and every piece, it wouldn’t come together,” explained Greg Viloria, who serves on the executive committee as chair for social media marketing.
Viloria, who was hired as a community aide for Japantown’s Task Force last year, felt motivated to further become involved in his community and joined the festival’s planning committee. Although this is only his second year helping with the festival, his enthusiasm and commitment are evident.
“I grew up in San Francisco; once you get the — I call it a disease,” he said, laughing lightly. “To help the community, you want to keep helping it. I didn’t appreciate it before.”
Viloria has 50 volunteers working with him, a group so large that he needs to appoint a tier of coordinators to manage everyone. Preparation for these volunteers is year-round. Meetings begin in September and are monthly at first, then become bi-monthly. All of the programming must be set in February, well in advance, so that marketing can begin. The website must be posted and up to date. A preview day is held about a month before the festival to establish the events that will be taking place.
Being in the marketing division, Viloria and his crew are quite busy prior to the actual festival. First, the volunteers must be obtained and organized. Following that, there are interviews and press releases, reviews of Web copy, television promotions, and help with outreach.
Once the festival actually takes place, the work for the volunteers does not end. Barricades need to be set up and then taken down. Technical arrangement, performer management, and audience control are required at the four to five stages. Bilingual translators are needed for the groups visiting from Japan. Servers are necessary for the food and beer booths. This year, Viloria is hoping for a live stream of the Grand Parade, which would be the first. This, too, requires volunteer work.
“Our focus this year, and the next two years, is to establish a good base for the 50th,” stated Viloria. “We are building up to that.”
With such a big event in foresight, a lot of preparation will need to be done — meaning that a lot of volunteers will be needed.
“We try to make it nice for them. It’s very important to you show people appreciation. They want to feel that they are making an impact, that they are doing something important,” emphasized Viloria. “There is an expression, ‘Be inclusive, not exclusive’ — this is very prominent in the Japanese culture. It’s important to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”
Viloria also makes sure that all of his volunteers know the mission behind the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, which is to make sure that all of the attendees are comfortable — “inclusive, not exclusive”.
With a mission such as that, and with such hardworking volunteers, and with so much to explore within the Japanese culture, this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival is sure to be a success!
For more information about the festival, please visit the website at: www.sfcherryblossom.org.