Blooming in all its splendor
WAIMEA — The very first Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival in 1994 had just four booths and was attended by 400 people.
Today, the event has more than 300 vendors and attracts upwards of 60,000 attendees. People come from throughout the state and even the world, and many come back year after year.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige attended the event in 2016 and plans to come back again Saturday. In a special printed recognition commemorating the event, he said the festival has been a respected tradition in Waimea for decades.
“The festival fosters an appreciation for the traditions of Americans of Japanese ancestry, especially hanami, or the viewing of flowers in the springtime,” Ige said.
Waimea’s climate is especially conducive to growing cherry trees, and the town’s own flower viewing celebration honors the 75-or-so cherry trees found in Church Row Park. The trees include different varieties and each variety determines how pink the tree’s blossoms will be. Some are bright pink, while others are much lighter.
A recent addition to the Church Row collection are eight traditional cherry blossom trees from Japan. As opposed to the Okinawan cherry trees, whose branches grow straight up, branches on the Japanese cherry blossom trees hang down and bloom in an umbrella-like showering shape. The traditional trees were planted three years ago and, although a few have had to be replaced, residents hope they will survive and thrive. The trees take about seven years to truly become strong.
Roxcie Waltjen, cultural education administrator for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation, serves as overseer for the festival. She was just one week on the job when the first event was held, and has been at the helm ever since.
“The festival is successful because of the community; the community’s acceptance and willingness to participate,” she said.
Being involved with the festival the past 23 years has given Waltjen a unique behind-the-scenes perspective. From experience, she smoothly orchestrates all elements, from placing people and booths where it makes the most sense to coordinating and scheduling events at more and more new locations throughout town as the festival has continued to grow.
Waltjen notes that the festival used to have just one craft show; now there are three. There used to be just one farmers market but now there are four. Parker School is now involved as is Pukalani Stables. Queens Hospital is another new participant.
“We don’t solicit, yet every year we have people come to us and say, ‘Hey, we want to be a part of this,’” she said. “In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never turned down any organization that wants to be part of the festival. As it has evolved, I think it’s gotten bigger and better.”
With more people and more organizations involved, by necessity the festival has had to spread out to other locations around Waimea.
Waltjen says she’s been told by a Parker Ranch Center store owner that on Cherry Blossom Festival day they make more money than any other day of the year.
Waltjen says because Hawaii Island is made up of so many cultures, the festival cannot be exclusive.
“We have to be inclusive,” she said. “That’s how we’re going to teach about culture.”
When the festival started, the original planning committee was made up of about 15 volunteers who were predominantly Japanese Americans. Many on the original committee have passed on, but fortunately new people were brought in. Waltjen now has a committee of 25 volunteers and 30 different agencies assisting her. Interestingly, as the number of committee members increased so, too, did the diversity of the committee.
“On our planning committee today we have Japanese, Germans, Hawaiians and just about every nation represented. The festival has evolved to where it’s truly cosmopolitan,” she said.
That isn’t to say the festival has lost its decidedly Japanese feel.
“We still have the tradition of Japan,” Waltjen said, “but we have made it local and I like to think that’s made it better.”
Apparently Japanese visitors agree with her.
“If you go to Japan and attend their Sakura Festival, which is their cherry blossom festival, you go to a park, sit under the trees and watch the flowers bloom. It’s a lot like a picnic,” Waltjen explained.
On the flip side, the Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival has so many things going on that Japanese visitors have much more to see.
For example, mochi pounding — or the Mochi Tsuki demonstration — is a favorite stop at the Waimea festival. The interactive demonstration allows people to try mochi pounding themselves. Waltjen was surprised one year when 300 Japanese visitors were amazed by it.
“They were so impressed because they don’t pound mochi in Japan,” Waltjen learned. “They have a machine that does it, so they’d never seen it being done the old-fashioned way. Of all the festivals I do, the Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival is one that I hold close to my heart.”
She continued, “I have people coming out of the woodwork saying, ‘Hey, we want to get involved. We want to participate. We want to learn and be tolerant. With everything else going on in the world, I think the festival is a great example of how peace and unity can be portrayed. The world could take a lesson from what goes on here.”