For three decades the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has been home to the Sakura Matsuri cherry blossom festival, a two-day festival comprised of both traditional and contemporary Japanese arts and culture, including dance, martial arts, manga, costume play (“cosplay”), workshops, demonstrations, and guided tours of the Garden’s Japanese plant collections. While Brooklynites view this tradition as an authentic Japanese experience, there are many differences between this festival and ones in Japan. When you think of cherry blossoms in Japan, there is one word that comes to mind: Hanami. Hanami usually consists of friends and familes having picnics under the trees, and often involves consuming large amounts of sake (Japanese rice wine). This happens because Japanese law doesn’t crack down on public consumption of alcohol, unlike our friendly officers in Brooklyn. Also, people in Brooklyn are only permitted to eat in certain restricted areas, whereas folks in Japan are not only able to eat wherever they want (or find a spot), but are allowed to bring outside food into the cherry blossom areas.
Although Brooklyn’s version of Sakura has a few more restrictions then its Japanese counterpart, the cultural shows, guest appearances, and unique events that take place at the Botanic Garden in early May add a special flavor to the experience. Highlights from this year’s festival included a comedy routine by Uncle Yo, who talked about the homoerotic undertones of Dragon Ball Z, heart pounding taiko (Japanese drums) performances by Taiko Masala and Soh Daiko, vintage kimonos for visitors to try on, a “cosplay” fashion show which featured over a dozen of the most extraordinary handmade costumes in the city, an ikebana flower-arranging demonstration, and hands-on workshops where kids made their own tea bags, tried taiko drumming, and created miniature Noguchi-inspired sculptures. There were also a number of areas where patrons could donate money to help the victims of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the country this past March. Whether Brooklyn’s Sakura Matsuri cherry blossom festival is considered authentically Japanese or not has no bearing on the positive aspects this 30-year tradition brings to the local community. Besides its collection of more than 200 Japanese flowering cherry trees (the most diverse array anywhere in the world outside Japan), this annual event teaches children about a foreign tradition they would never learn about in school. It also steals some of the thunder from Manhattan, and proves once again that Brooklyn continues to be a cultural melting pot for people from all over the globe.
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