In 1953 the widow of local Japanese-language newspaper publisher Fred Makino brought cherry trees from Okinawa to Waimea to honor her late husband’s memory. The cherry trees, the ﬁrst in Waimea, survived and—with lots of care—proliferated. In 1972 members of the Waimea Lion’s Club planted twenty cherry trees on a triangle of land in the center of town known as Church Row Park. When Japan’s Emperor Hirohito visited in 1975 ﬁfty more trees were added to the triangle. In 2012 the Japanese Consul General planted a dozen more. Today, come cherry blossom time, the trees of Church Row Park are Waimea’s pride and joy.
They’ve also become a reason for a party. In olden days aristocrats in Japan gathered to view the ﬁrst cherry blossoms of spring and write poetry beneath ﬂowering branches. In Waimea the Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival is a much more democratic affair—everyone is welcome and everyone comes. Since the ﬁrst festival in 1993, which four hundred people attended, it’s grown to thirty to forty thousand people each year and has spread from the park to a half-dozen other venues around town. The festival celebrates all things Japanese, from taiko drumming to tea ceremonies, bonsai to bon dances, but Hawai‘i Island’s other cultures are represented, too. Native Hawaiian quilters, for instance, have created an ofﬁcial quilt for the festival, and musical genres that can be heard at the event range from country and western to slack key.
The festival, which this year is scheduled for February 7, also celebrates the deep roots of Hawai‘i Island’s Japanese community. Well over a century ago Japanese immigrants arrived on the island, almost all to labor on plantations. Ensuing gen-erations prospered and children became businessmen, doctors, lawyers—and, in Waimea, paniolo (cowboys). Many of the men in Waimea’s Parker Ranch Paniolo Hall of Fame have Japanese last names. Says Nancy Nonaka, who organizes the activities of the Kamuela Hongwanji Mission during the festival, “We’d like to have our young people be aware of the hard times that the immigrants had when they ﬁrst arrived here—and to be aware of their heritage.”
Story by Alan McNarie. Photos by Megan Spelman