Washington, D.C. Stories and Tips

Sakura Matsuri, the Japanese Street Festival

Stunning choreography at the Sakura Matsuri Photo, Washington, D.C., United States

Even though sakura means "cherry blossom" and matsuri means festival, there’s scarcely a cherry blossom in sight for this jam-packed, blockbuster street festival held "inland" (off the Mall and away from the Tidal Basin) between 12th and Pennsylvania, NW. While the Sakura Matsuri is part of the National Cherry Blossom Festival, its focus is more on Japanese culture and less on the cherry blossoms per se. Organized by the Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., the street festival transforms the Federal Triangle area into a slice of Japan for a single day. But what a day – arts-and-crafts demonstrations, food stalls offering a "Taste of Japan," a "Ginza" shopping arcade, several performing arts stages, and, of course, karaoke performances fueled by lots of Sapporo beer.

I had a long meeting on the Saturday morning of the Cherry Blossom Festival parade (bummer!), so I missed the parade but arrived in time to take in the afternoon’s festivities at the Sakura Matsuri. By the time I arrived, the street festival was in full swing, with an absolutely beautiful spring day bringing people out in droves. The media had fueled the crowds, too, by trumpeting the fact that, for once, the day of the parade would also be the day of peak bloom for the cherry blossoms themselves.

The Metro coming downtown was just about the most crowded I’ve ever seen it outside of Fourth of July. I actually got off one tightly packed train and waited for the next, which turned out to be only slightly less cramped. Adding to the congestion was the number of cyclists who were participating in a Cherry Blossom ride who had brought bikes onto the train. Then there was my pet peeve, the massive double-wide strollers favored by modern parents, the Humvees of baby transport. The Metro ride was, in short, a mess.

But that inconvenience seemed a trifle once I exited the station and was swept up into the street scene. Crowds moved at a leisurely stroll through the grassy central plaza of the Federal Triangle and along the broad corridors of the surrounding blocks. The restrained-looking government buildings formed an odd backdrop for the clusters of bright balloons, the giant inflatable Sapporo beer bottle, the rows of tent booths, and the colorful festival banners. I wondered for a moment why the festival hadn’t been held on the Mall, but then quickly realized that the National Park Service and the Smithsonian have a stranglehold on that prime real estate. However, the Japan-America Society did just fine making use of the Federal Triangle area, whose streets are normally deserted on the weekend.

Lines for all the Japanese food vendors were long, so I snacked on candied nuts from a line-free vendor and amused myself watching the karaoke stage, where the brave (or simply inebriated) belted off-key renditions of such timeless tunes as "Stand by Your Man." I was tempted to enter one of the fenced-off official beer-imbibing areas myself but got sidetracked by the arts-and-crafts booths, not to mention all the stands selling everything from elaborate hairpins to earth-toned pottery.

I stopped to ask a festival volunteer for directions to the main performance stage, but no sooner had I asked than I heard the boom of taiko drums and knew which direction to go. I made a beeline for the stage, hoping to catch the performance by the Tamagawa University Dance & Taiko Group. I’d missed the Drum Festival held at the Kennedy Center the day before but had heard this group had delivered a knock-out performance. (Happily, it can be viewed online in a streamed version, though, of course, that doesn’t match a live performance.)

I’ve been to dozens of folk and cultural festivals and seen hundreds of performances, but this company put on one of the most dazzling displays I’ve ever seen. Tamagawa University Dance & Taiko Group is one of Japan’s premiere university performing ensembles, and it’s easy to see why. My first impression was that Tamagawa U. must have one helluva set of selection criteria. The men and women were all of a uniform type – tall, willowy, and graceful - but they must surely have also been selected on the basis of dazzling smiles. I’ve never seen such smiles – the megawatts flashed at a Hollywood awards ceremony pale in comparison. Their smiles, combined with the enthusiasm of their dancing and drumming, proclaimed, "We live to do this!"

The drumming was done chiefly by the men, with the all-out fervor and athleticism that’s the hallmark of taiko drumming. The art of taiko is over 2,000 years old, but the Tamagawa group made it seem positively contemporary. There was a joyful camaraderie among the drummers, too, that was charming to watch. The synchronized arms-high movements and broad spilts stance assumed by the drummers were especially effective.

The women primarily performed in dances, usually holding props such as batons or fans. My favorite piece featured bright-purple parasols twirled and arrayed with consummate grace. Whoever does the choreography for this group has a wonderful eye for harmony and line. Another highly entertaining dance featured both the men and women, presumably evoking a bathhouse setting. The women paraded saucily about with yellow towels draped around their necks or mocked "toweling off" motions, shimmying with the towels held behind them as they "dried" their backsides. The men, emerging from the wings, beheld this bevy of bathing beauties and immediately set about courting and flirting with the women, falling backwards (presumably in awe and amazement) whenever the ladies affected a particularly breathtaking stance.

In fact, I had a hard time deciding which was cuter, the guys or the gals. But I knew one thing for sure: if the Tamagawa University Dance & Taiko Group performs at next year’s Sakura Matsuri, I’ll definitely make a point to be there.

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