An annual tradition like no other
The 23rd annual Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival this Saturday, Feb. 6 celebrates the traditional Japanese custom of “hanami,” or enjoying the beauty of flowers, and especially the arrival of cherry blossoms in Waimea, which typically last only a week or two.
The all-day event gets better and bigger every year. North Hawaii Councilwoman Margaret Wille says festival organizers are expecting upwards of 80,000 people, which would double last year’s attendance.
Beginning at 9 a.m., a myriad of activities are held at various venues throughout town. These include an all-day lineup of Japanese and multi-cultural performing arts, local hula troupes, Chinese Lion Dancers and a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Hands-on activities and demonstrations feature Hawaiian quilting instruction, origami and furoshiki folding, how to make bonsai trees, as well as a chance to try mochi pounding and taste it afterward.
This year, the Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival features nearly 150 craft and food vendors, a cherry blossom art exhibit at the Firehouse Gallery, a cherry tea tasting and a baked cherry pie competition. Pink banners identify festival events at 10 designated locations sprawling across Waimea, from the Parker Ranch Center to the Hawaii Homestead Farmer’s Market on Hwy. 19. A map of the shuttle route and festival venues is included in a detailed festival program provided at each venue location. Events conclude around 3 p.m.
Waimea’s Church Row cherry trees
The Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival is held annually on the first Saturday in February to coincide with the blooming of Waimea’s rows of cherry trees along the central Church Row Park loop near town center.
In an Internet posting, Councilwoman Wille shared her appreciation for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and Waimea’s cherry trees in particular, which she said epitomize the beauty of nature around Hawaii Island and especially in Waimea.
“The trees symbolize our appreciation for, and alliances with, our Asian Pacific ohana sister nations, especially Japan, from where we have received cherry trees,” Wille wrote.
Waimea’s first cherry trees were planted 62 years ago. Initially, the Waimea Lion’s Club planted one row of cherry trees along the main highway. Since that time, dozens of cherry trees have joined the first row along the Church Row Park loop. The trees are painstakingly maintained and cared for by members of the Lion’s Club, in particular, Fred Nonaka, whose care of the trees over the decades has been critical to their health and survival.
Most recently, Nonaka has been personally watering the trees using his own water. “Occasionally I’ll use water from the (Buddha) church,” he says, but most of the time he hauls five, five-gallon buckets of water from home to the park two or three times a week.
Nonaka is modest about his involvement. “I do what I can,” he says, but agrees it’s a labor of love and one that he enjoys.
A landscaper by trade, Nonaka was born in Hakalau but came to the west side about 50 years ago to provide landscaping for the then brand new Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. He worked as a landscaper at the hotel for eight years, then started his own company, Fred’s Nursery, which his son Myles now runs.
“So actually, my son is now my boss,” says Nonaka, chuckling.
The Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival is produced by the Hawaii County Parks and Recreation’s Culture and Education Section. The festival is a community-wide effort by a dedicated group of volunteers.
This year’s honorees
The Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival honors two longtime contributing organizations this year, both of which have landmark anniversaries in 2016. Waimea Bonyu Kai Bonsai Club members are celebrating their 60th anniversary, and the Waimea Arts Council the 40th anniversary.
The organizations are honored at the festival’s opening ceremony Saturday at 9 a.m. on the entertainment stage behind Parker Ranch Center. Governor David Ige, Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi, Consul General of Japan Yasushi Misawa and Hawaii Councilwoman Wille are scheduled to attend.
The Waimea Bonyu Kai Bonsai Club has a proud and sentimental connection to the Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival as the club’s sensei (teacher), the late Isami Ishihara, propagated some of the first cherry trees planted in Church Row Park. The club has participated in all previous 22 festivals.
“Our participation in the festival is very hands-on,” says Club President Bob Male.
Tents are set up for the club on the Church Row lawn next to the flowering cherry trees which Ishihara grew and donated. One tent serves as workshop space where club members work on bonsai plants throughout the day, demonstrating their skills and fielding questions from the public. Another tent serves as a display area, and a third smaller tent houses bonsai plants of all shapes and sizes that are for sale.
“A person who buys a plant at the festival will have the option to take it to the workshop area where a club member will explain how to take care of it,” says Male.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the Waimea Arts Council (WAC) is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the arts, encouraging artists and providing a forum for art-related community events. It is one of the state’s oldest arts organizations and is made up of both artists and non-artists.
The WAC’s most visible project is the Firehouse Gallery, which serves as a space for member artists to showcase their work, with a portion of any sales being donated back to the organization.
“The gallery is a wonderful way to support local artists and provides a way for them to put their work out there and see what sort of response they get from people,” says WAC Secretary Julie McCue.
Each year, WAC sponsors an “Annual Cherry Blossom Art Exhibition” at the Firehouse Gallery in conjunction with the festival from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. That day, artists do demonstrations of their creatives processes on the front lawn. The gallery also sponsors a sidewalk chalk art event there during the festival, open to all ages.
WAC also selects the featured image that represents the festival from member artist submissions. This year, for the first time a photograph was selected as the festival’s featured art image. It is titled Imiola Church and was taken by Barbara Schaefer.
“On a whim, I went to Church Row and found a late blooming cherry tree with the pinks highlighted against a beautiful blue Waimea sky and branches framing Imiola Church. The crowds of the Cherry Blossom Festival were gone, but I had my private ‘viewing of the flowers.’ It was an image that just said ‘Waimea’ to me,” Schaefer says.
Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival parking is available in the town center, Church Row and on the soccer field across the street. Free festival shuttle service by Roberts Hawaii is provided between most venues from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. For questions or more information, contact Hawaii County Parks and Recreation Culture Education Administrator Roxcie Waltjen at 961-8706.