This past weekend I attended Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual Sakura Matsuri festival in celebration of Japanese culture. It was held throughout the entire garden with events spaced out and designated to certain subset areas. Although it was foggy with moisture clinging heavily to the atmosphere, as the day progressed the sun came out and blessed attendees with the most amazing atmosphere.
Going through security was painless, and we received these pretty pink maps of the area, events, and activities happening throughout the day. I went on Saturday, and judging by the website Sunday’s events differed slightly and were geared towards families with kids.
It is no secret as this seems to be happening around the entire country, but we have been experiencing absolutely abysmal weather here in America. New York, in particular, is still averaging in the 40s when we are usually in the low 60s with humidity in April. It even snowed earlier this month, which is a very rare and strange occurrence in spring. I could go on a tirade about the effects of global warming and capitalistic corporate interests, but it was a happy day so we will convey only happy thoughts.
Now I have a confession to make that admittedly, I am vaguely okay with: I am bad with directions. I’m a visual learner and can usually remember landmarks and buildings before memorizing street names and signs. It’s the same with people; I can remember faces well but not names. I do know how to read a map and follow directions, but if the map is just vague names and places I’ve never seen before my brain somehow goes “nope” and cancels the information out.
So despite many signs around the gardens with the iconic “you are here” red dots, having a map in my hands and even asking the physically ever-present staff – I could not for the life of me find some of the locations of these events.
I walked around in what felt like a loop trying to find some of the stages listed in the pamphlet to only sigh and stare at distant flowering trees.
I found the Cherry Esplanade stage by accident while I was looking for the Osborne Garden. In the Osborne Garden, I couldn’t find the Japanese Market. I had to continue to a hill, up some stairs to the right and came across the J-Lounge Stage. I now wondered where the J-Lounge Game Stop was – had I passed it? Did I miss it in the sea of people now pouring into the gardens at the three designated entrances?
Again, I am quite uncertain when it comes to directions.
However, there were truly stunning cherry blossoms flowered throughout the gardens. Several of the blooms were found in the Japanese Hill and Pond Garden toward the center of the festivities. The tour line was very long and I decided to move on instead of waiting. Judging by the crowd size and group limits, it would have been about twenty minutes before I could have been admitted – which would have been pushing toward the noon cut off time. The torii gate and koi pond could be viewed without going into the wooden gated enclave, and I opted to queue up to take photos.
Many people were very kind and respectful, but there is always someone who decides to ignore the line and photobomb your perfect shots.
Walking around aimlessly I found many cosplayers, but not as many as I initially expected.
Last year while I was still employed at a Japanese cultural center, I had a conversation with a co-worker inquiring information on the event. She expressed her displeasure at how many cosplayers and “weebs” turned out. I viewed a few weebs (some during the subway ride to the event – brightly colored dyed hair, decked out in anime merchandise gushing excitedly about their favorite anime and what to do first at the festival) but it was mainly people of all backgrounds coming to celebrate Japan on a nice weekend out.
A good amount of visitors were also wearing vibrant playful summer yukata with sneakers underneath. I can understand not wanting to wear geta sandals on such uneasy terrain.
Later on, a really humorous moment occurred when stand-up comic Rio Koike asked the Japanese in the crowd to make some noise and everyone laughed when only a handful of people responded.
One of the less funny aspects of the festival was the pricing of food.
Wow, everything was inflated. $20.00 for karaage? $8.00 for onigiri? I think I was floored because I know the Japanese (American) convenience store prices of these items and where to get high-quality items cheaply.
Regardless, people brought picnic blankets and sat on great lawns watching the events on the stage.
Because of our bad weather, many of the sakura trees had not blossomed.
There were about three that were in peak bloom that attracted huge crowds.
I spent a good deal of time taking photographs of them as the petals blew in the wind.
It reminded me of the start of a new school year in anime.
In addition to live performances of Kabuki Buyo dances, there were taiko drummers, tea ceremony demonstrations, and anime culture themed music along with a Naruto dance party event.
Wandering over to the Japanese Market you could find wagashi, kokeshi dolls, a bookstore selling language and travel-centric materials, handmade merchandise and Wuhao’s Tenugui wraps.
A display of an urban tea terrarium and mikoshi, 神輿 or portable sacred Shinto palanquin used during transportation to new shrines or festival ceremonies.
So many concurrent events were ongoing and I heard that there would be a BBG Parasol Society Fashion Show, but unfortunately, I was not able to stay the entire day to see the performance. I caught glimpses of a few people walking around with parasols, so I’m sure it was a wicked event!
All in all, I enjoyed my time at the Sakura Matsuri and loved the laid back mellow atmosphere. Brooklyn is always a welcome calmed pace in contrast to Manhattan. I even bought a travel book from a nice lady who set up shop outside of the nearby Brooklyn Museum.
I’m not sure what other cherry blossom festivals are around New York or even NYC for that matter, but this one is definitely worth attending if you enjoy traditional and contemporary Japanese culture.
No outside food is allowed, but bringing water bottles is a good idea. Also, a blanket to sit out on the lawn and of course a camera. If you would like to take professional or commercial photos or even bring a tripod, you need to apply for a permit beforehand. I arrived at the garden about half an hour after the event began at 10:00 am, and I suggest you follow the website’s advice of arriving during off-peak hours.
The crowds really do suddenly materialize, and it’s nearly impossible to get great shots or find a choice area to set your blanket down. Selfie sticks also are not allowed, but people do tend to sneak those in.
I’m not sure if this would be considered a review of BBG’s Sakura Matsuri, but it is a fun event and very welcoming of people from all backgrounds; It’s also kid friendly for parents. Security had a huge presence and would only politely ask guests or their children to not pick the flowers or take photos deep within the shrubbery (which I witnessed a few times. Like grown adult people actually hid in bushes and tried climbing into the trees). I will without a doubt be returning next year.
So, have you been to a Japanese Festival before? What is one festival you dream of attending? For years now, I’ve wanted to attend the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori prefecture. I love the colorful floats and want to taste the super authentic hot festival foods. Also, Aomori is known for their great apples! Maybe not this year, but hopefully next August I can attend for myself in person.
Tell me what your favorite festival food is! Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I would love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more coverage of Japanese events around NYC (and beyond!). We also just launched an Instagram page which you can follow here! Let’s travel together!