Think Pink: Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival celebrates 30th anniversary on Saturday
February 2, 2023, 6:00 PM HST
* Updated February 4, 7:35 AM
Since its beginning, the Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival has been all about the delicate pink blooms on the cherry trees at Church Row Park in the North Hawai‘i community of about 11,000 people. Oftentimes, a crown of snow on Maunakea provides a picturesque backdrop.
In 1994, the festival’s first program cover featured a graphic of a blooming cherry tree branch on a pink background with the theme: “Hanami: A Viewing of the Flowers in Springtime.”
The Japanese tradition of hanami, which combines the words “hana,” or flower, and “mi,” or look, has been observed since the 7th century and celebrates the fleeting beauty of nature and arrival of spring.
While the festival has evolved over three decades, it remains rooted in the age-old Japanese pastime at its core — and the original theme remains.
The festival “invokes special memories,” of spending the day in beautiful Waimea, said Morty Carter, cultural and education administrator of the Hawai‘i County Parks and Recreation Department.
Residents and visitors turn out by the thousands for the one-day “cherry blossom viewing party” and the interactive activities, cultural demonstrations, displays, ethnic foods and entertainment put on by multiple community organizations and businesses.
After a two-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming festival on Saturday (Feb. 4) once again will be in person, with some organizers expecting a record crowd. A full slate of activities will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. along Church Row and at several other venues throughout Waimea. More information also is available on Facebook.
It’s once again time to “Think pink.”
“I know that folks from all over the island love to go to the Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival,” Big Island state Sen. Lorraine Inouye said in a Facebook post Tuesday. “Plan ahead — it’s going to be busy!”
The festival celebrates trees that not only are non-native to Hawai’i, but also weren’t present in Waimea until 1953. That year, as a living memorial to Fred Kinzaburo Makino — the founder of Hawai‘i’s Japanese language newspaper Hawai‘i Hochi, which is still in publication today — his widow planted three Formosan cherry trees. They produce flowers but not fruit.
The late Isami Ishihara, a noted Waimea gardener, bonsai master and festival volunteer, propagated more trees, donating the seedlings to the Waimea Lions Club for community beautification.
The club received permission from the County in 1972 to plant 20 trees at Church Row Park. In 1975, the Lions planted 50 more in honor of Emperor Hirohito’s visit and the centennial celebration of Japanese immigration to Waimea.
Photos from the Waimea Lions Club booth during past Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festivals.
The club has nurtured and cared for the trees through the years with the County’s help, including replacing any that have died. The late Hisao Kimura, a professional agronomist, was instrumental in laying the groundwork for that partnership.
“The Waimea Lions are the backbone of our festival,” the festival said in a post on its Facebook page. Long-time Waimea Community Association member Patti Cook said it’s important to remember that without the Lions being their stewards for all these years, the trees wouldn’t be as healthy as they are now or maybe not even there.
During the festival, the Lions Club offers an informational photo display chronicling its planting efforts through the years.
The festival began under the direction of former Parks and Recreation Director George Yoshida. It continues to be presented each year on the first Saturday of February, now by the department’s Cultural and Education Division.
Much of what makes the festival memorable for Cook, who now serves as a board member for the Waimea Community Association, is how it highlights Japanese culture. She said people often think about ranching, farming and paniolo when it comes to Waimea. The festival perpetuates beautiful Japanese traditions and brings that part of the community’s heritage to the forefront.
Photos from past Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festivals.
Activities and locations vary from year to year, but usually include hands-on fun, from mochi (Japanese rice cake) pounding, bonsai demonstrations and origami making to traditional Japanese tea ceremonies and bon dancing.
A bon dance is a series of communal dances while moving in a circle around musicians — or sometimes recorded music — on a central platform called a yagura. Dancers often wear yukata (summer kimono), and some dances involve the use of fans, sticks or other implements.
There’s also a plethora of entertainment, including taiko drumming, hula and a Chinese lion dance. Even headliners from Japan have delighted festival-goers. Numerous craft vendors, a farmers market, Asian-themed collectibles, cherry tree blossoms and cherry-themed art also are part of the celebration. And don’t forget about the quilt show.
All the fun can spur people’s appetites, too, and the festival offers numerous broke-da-mouth food booths, Asian baked goods and refreshing shave ice, not to mention free samples at staged cooking demonstrations by island chefs.
“The crowds are always enthusiastic,” said Nancy Male, secretary of the Waimea Bon-yu Kai Bonsai Club, which will have three tents in front of Kamuela Hongwanji offering demonstrations, a bonsai exhibition and bonsai sales during this year’s festival. Bonsai is the Japanese art of growing and training miniature trees.
Male said she loves when there is entertainment on the Church Row greenspace, something that hasn’t always been a thing throughout the festival’s history. Male said acts such as the lion dancing and taiko drumming give the area a vibrancy while people enjoy the blossoms.
After all, the trees and their pretty pink flowers are the main attraction.
Additional photos of the cherry trees blossoming in years past at Church Row Park in Waimea.
“They’re so beautiful,” Male said. “And it’s fleeting. We only have a few weeks where they hold on before they drop the buds.”
The trees start blossoming usually in mid-January, but that depends on Mother Nature.
“If it’s perfect conditions and the trees wait for the festival to bloom, that’s when I’m really the happiest,” Male said.
But it’s not always the case. One year the trees started blooming at the end of December. Another year, the trees needed help to get blossoming started.
“Ice was gathered from all the restaurants and put around the base of the trees at Church Row Park to simulate a cold weather snap,” a Facebook post said. Cherry trees grow in cold climates. They bloom when a cold spell, about 45 degrees or lower, is followed by a warm spell.
It’s taken a village to keep the 75 or so trees that now call Church Row Park home blooming through the years and to keep the festival successful through the years.
“What truly makes the festival special is the collaboration between many community organizations, businesses, government and individuals, working together to ensure the event takes place each year — an event that draws the local community and visitors from all over while highlighting the seamless blending of cultures and diversity in Hawai‘i,” Carter said.
There is a marvelous mix of volunteers, including many members of Waimea’s Japanese community, Cook said.
In 2002, most of the events and activities were hosted in Church Row Park under tents. The County brought tarps that were supported by metal poles that year. But the wind was so fierce that at one point a couple of the older volunteers literally jumped up and grabbed the horizontal poles securing the tarps to keep them on the ground, with one of them being lifted off the ground in the process.
The festival planning committee is eager to again welcome festival-goers. In 2021, the event was hosted virtually. In 2022, the festival was canceled due a spike in COVID cases.
Like the cherry trees themselves, the festival is coming out a slumber this year. James Hustace, president of the Waimea Community Association, said people are super excited about this year’s festival.
“It’s not just from Waimea, it’s the whole island that turns out,” Cook said. “It’s just really fun and pretty; it’s kind of like everything comes to a halt, enjoying the day and enjoying this place we call home.”