Cherry Blossom festival blooms in Japantown
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Thousands of spectators made it to San Francisco's Japantown on Saturday for the start of the neighborhood's annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The festival continues to be a ceremonial bow toward the country's affection for the symbolic budding of the fruit trees.

"The cherry blossoms here are beautiful," Japanese-born Sakiko Takeda said from Post Street opening day. "They're the same as in Japan."

The festival extends several city blocks and hosts scores of Japanese-inspired music acts, demonstrations and collections. An origami exhibit, a flower gallery and a stockpile of swords were open to the public free of charge.

There was also a children's arts-and-crafts area, a chess tournament and large food bazaar. Many visitors came to enjoy the festival's food on its sunny opening day.

"I came to check out the neighborhood," 19-year-old Aaron Harrington said of his first visit to the 42-year-old street festival. "Plus, I like sushi."

On top of sushi, Harrington was able to purchase food from the likes of fried noodles, sake and spam musubi (Spam and rice bricks). Being in America, barbeque ribs, hamburgers and popcorn were also sold by various local non-profit organizations.

Cherry trees start to bloom in April and May and it is typical for Japanese families to spend time under and around a tree's smooth, dark bark and pink flowers.

On April 19, the grand parade will march from the Civic Center into Japantown. The Taru Mikoshi, a large portable shrine will be hoisted by more than 100 participants. George Takei, of Star Trek fame, is the festival's Grand Marshal.

The main stage at Osaka Way (Buchanan) and Post Street acts as the center of the festival. The Peace Plaza Stage held martial arts demonstrations, synchronized dance groups and even a rock band throughout the day, and did so in front of a both Japanese and American flags.

The two-weekend long event is intended to be a way to promote the island-nation's culture, organizer Tim Hashimoto said. He hopes to teach other ethinc groups about his heritage.

"We're educating," Hashimoto said of his personal motives.

Hashimoto's grandparents were born in Japan, but the 21-year-old has never himself been. He noted a respect for the older generation's struggle through internment camps and discrimination as a personal reason for organizing the festival this year.

"It's amazing they got through that."

But the festival doesn't dwell on the previous suffering of immigrants, but rather celebrates what the Japanese and Japanese American culture still embraces today.

The festival will continue next weekend with several events. For a schedule of events, visit the Cherry Blossom Festival Web site.

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