Long before Seattle's love affair with Ichiro, Nintendo or Uwajimaya, there were cherry blossoms, which shout the glories of the coming...

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Long before Seattle’s love affair with Ichiro, Nintendo or Uwajimaya, there were cherry blossoms, which shout the glories of the coming spring and then tumble from trees at the height of their astonishing beauty.

Blossoms hit the ground early with this year’s false spring. But new ones are coming, some in time for the Cherry Blossom Walk around Seward Park this Saturday, and the 29th anniversary of the Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival April 22-24 at the Seattle Center.

That festival, which plans a two-year-long commemoration by planting new trees in cities across the state, helped seed Festál, a series of 20 world cultural celebrations that honor the rich mix of heritages in our region. By virtue of being held in “Seattle’s living room,” as former chair Yutaka Sasaki calls Seattle Center, the Cherry Blossom Festival put sushi and teriyaki side by side with hot dogs and pizza and made the Northwest more comfortable for Japanese culture and businesses.

Tazue, left, and Yutaka Sasaki help organize the Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival.

Cherry blossoms mean a renewal, a brightening time of year. They’re symbolic of life’s splendor and fragility, members of the festival committee said on a recent night around a plate of fresh sushi and hot tea. The decorative cherry family, first planted in great numbers here in 1929, dominates Seattle’s landscape.

To Shea Aoki, who at 91 seems more vigorous than some of Seattle’s trees, the pink and white blankets of blossoms mean simply, “Japan.” She has worked to honor cherry blossoms and Japanese culture since she was 19.

The snowstorms of cherry blossom are certainly honored in Japan, where they are the national flower and mark the start of the school year.


Cherry Blossom Walk
and Festival


Cherry Blossom Walk at Seward Park Rain or shine, cherry blossoms on the ground or poking out new, the Cherry Blossom Walk begins at 10 a.m. Saturday at the entrance to Seward Park, 5902 Lake Washington Blvd. S. in Seattle. The walk will include information of historical and cultural significance.

The Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival will be April 22-24 at Seattle Center Fisher Pavilion, Seattle Center Pavilion and Center House. It includes traditional dance and music, Go tournament, colorful costumes, martial arts, tea ceremonies and entertaining educational activities. Highlights include the Biwas, top spinning wizards from Japan, and a mini film series. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the public invited to Friday’s opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. As part of the two-year celebration of the 30th anniversary, cultural roots will be emphasized this year and contemporary art and culture next year. Visit www.seattlecenter.com/events/festivals and look under Festál Cultural Festivals.

NORTHWEST NIKKEI MUSEUM

Former Premier Reijiro Wakatsuki planted the first of 3,500 cherry trees in December 1929.

Ikebana International, Seattle Chapter 19, Haru No Hibiki or “Echo of Spring” 46th annual Japanese Flower Arrangement Exhibition will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 30 (demonstration 1 to 2 p.m. and 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.), and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 1 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, Volunteer Park, 1400 E. Prospect.


“Think of a country that has more cherry trees than in America, but they have to import cherries because the cherry tree is a flowering cherry tree — not fruiting,” adds Keith Takechi of Seattle Asian Art Museum. “They’ve made an aesthetic decision.”

In Seattle, we seem perpetually surprised by the blossoms. Spring here again? In full color? The abundant trees — some say “overabundance” — at Seward Park, along Lake Washington Boulevard, at the University of Washington, and Seattle Center, are a yearly reminder of the strong cultural ties between Seattle and Japan.

The first regular shipping service between the two countries took place between Yokohama and Seattle in 1896. By 1910, Japanese were Seattle’s biggest minority. A decade later, Japanese farmers provided 75 percent of the vegetables and half the milk to Seattle and King County, according to HistoryLink.org.

When a devastating 8.3 earthquake hit Japan in 1923, Seattle residents and the Japan-America Society of Seattle sent aid.

In 1929, area Japanese residents donated 3,500 cherry trees to Seattle as a reminder of the “growing amity between the people of Japan and the U.S.” Earthquake survivors in Yokohama added the gift of a large stone lantern at Seward Park in 1930.

Takechi drew pained laughter at the committee meeting recently when he told of seeing 20 gardeners in Japan delicately pruning one tree, and how he watched one man attempt the task here with a chainsaw some years ago.

David Enroth, one of the early leaders of the Japan-America Society of Seattle that helped promote the Cherry Blossom Festival, has expressed concern to the Seattle Parks Department that the trees are not revered here as they are in Japan. He and others on the committee worry the trees are not living a full life span.

MIKE SIEGEL / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Miho Yamaguchi performed a traditional Japanese dance at the Seattle Cherry Blossom and Japanese Cultural Festival in 1981.

Mark Mead, senior urban forester, responded that the trees are stable at the moment and aging as expected for trees of the species and in these conditions, but that a full assessment of the trees will be done along Lake Washington Boulevard in the next year.

One of the goals of the 30th anniversary of the festival is to raise money to plant new cherry trees in cities across Washington state, and replace or nurse ailing trees here. Joan Seko, former owner of Bush Garden Restaurant with her husband, Roy, will work with longtime supporter Frankie Key and state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, to get that started.

Nolan Rundquist, city arborist for the transportation department, says replacements are welcome, but the city is not looking to add more trees because there are already so many.

Flowering cherries and plums make up 40 percent of Seattle’s street trees. Given that high percentage, there are concerns that a single pest such as the cherry bark tortrix moth could cause significant damage in a short time.

Seattle’s burst of spring beauty grew in 1976 with Prime Minister Takeo Miki’s gift of 1,000 trees honoring the U.S. bicentennial. His wife and daughter will be invited back to next year’s events.

In Japan, newscasters give daily reports of the Sakura Zensen, or the Cherry Blossom Front. When the blossoms come, people celebrate with Ohanami or flower viewing, stopping to make the most of the moment. Perhaps, say members of the committee, they should find a way to get the word out before the cherry blossoms arrive here, too, so people can celebrate with picnics.

“You drink, you eat because there might be a rain storm and those cherry blossoms might be gone tomorrow,” Takechi says.

“That’s kind of the delicacy of life, too.”

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com