BY CYNTHIA SWEENEY | SPECIAL TO NHN
In 1972, the Waimea Lions Club planted 20 cherry blossom trees along Church Row. Three years later, they planted 50 more in honor of Emperor Hirohito’s visit, as well as the centennial celebration of Japanese immigration to Waimea.
Fast-forward 15 years: There was talk circulating of a road that would bypass Waimea town. People began to worry if the bypass was built, no one would visit Waimea. The seniors at church row discussed what could be done and decided they needed to create a reason to come to Waimea — and the Cherry Blossom Festival was born.
“The first few years people didn’t realize how big it would be. Food vendors closed at 12:30 p.m. because there was no more food,” said Roxcie Waltjen, culture and education administrator at the Department of Parks and Recreation. “It spiraled into what it is today, the perfect example of the community, government and private entities working together.”
Waltjen has been with the festival since the beginning. The first festival was put together with 10 volunteers and about $400. Parks and Recreation partnered with community agents like the Lions Club, the Bonsai Club and the Hongwanji Mission, and with private entities like Parker Ranch.
There were less than 10 booths at the first festival and the “stage” was the back of a truck parked at Church Row. Less than 500 people attended the event.
Around 1997, crafts were added to the festival and, as Waltjen said, “people came out of the woodwork.” Because there was no access to electricity or water for the crafters, Hawaii Electric Light Co. installed an electric pole and the water company provided a waterline, all as a donation to the festival.
The wind, however, eventually got the better of the crafting tents.
“I got there and one of the volunteers was hanging onto a tent about six feet off the ground,” Waltjen said. “After that, if we were going to expand, we needed to move where it was less windy.”
Parker Ranch donated space at what was then a new shopping center, as well as trucks to move people and equipment and Kahilu Hall as an official stage.
“It spiraled to the point we needed to hire security officers and people to work sound and the stage,” Waltjen said.
Today, the festival costs the county about $10,000, with the biggest cost going toward tents, hired security and safety measures. Event planning begins in earnest in September. There are 25 volunteer members on the committee, but it takes hundreds of community volunteers to make the event happen.
“At this point it’s down to a science,” Waltjen said. “Waimea is unique. I’ve never had a problem or an issue. We don’t have to solicit. People call me.”
This year’s event will feature displays and demonstrations by more than 100 crafters, as well as tea ceremonies hosted by Parker Ranch’s historic homes. Three more saplings will also be planted in a ceremony including dignitaries from Japan and Mayor Billy Kenoi. Festival participants can walk to the different locations, or catch a ride on one of the Robert’s Hawaii buses, which have been donated to shuttle people between locations.
What started as a community seedling has grown into an event attended by thousands. Over the years, a sign-in book at the Hongwanji Mission has logged people from all over the world including Ecuador, China, Europe and Canada. They plan their trips around the festival year after year because, as Waltjen said, there is no way to do everything in one day, from learning to pound mochi, viewing special exhibits and sampling the food offered by different vendors.
“It just blows us away how a little town in the middle of the Pacific has people flocking from all over the world. The event showcases Waimea,” Waltjen said. “It has taken many volunteers and many hearts since the beginning. We share resources and we share the glory. This is Waimea’s event.”