The Cherry Blossom Festival, now in it's 11th year, has its roots in a neglected garden.
The Japanese Friendship Garden, at 303 E. Main Street, was gifted to Fort Wayne by its Japanese sister city, Takaoka, in 1977.
Japanese gardeners designed it, according to festival co-founder Dorothy Kittaka, but Fort Wayne's gardeners weren't sure how to care for it.
Eventually, Japanese expertise was solicited and the garden was returned to archetypal glory. A festival was immediately organized to celebrate the rejuvenated garden, not to mention the sister cities relationship that brought about that rejuvenation.
A half-dozen years ago or so, the festival moved from Freimann Square to the Allen County Public Library for the purposes of accommodating more people and activities - and avoiding inclement weather.
Kittaka said the five-hour-long festival has attracted as many as 10,000 visitors.
This year's edition of the festival happens May 7 from noon to 5 p.m. at the downtown library, 900 Library Plaza.
New elements include performances by Taiko Project, a Los Angeles-based ensemble dedicated to the preservation and promotion of American taiko drumming.
"Think of it as the taiko version of Stomp and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," Taiko Project's artistic director Bryan Yamami told the Seattle Times when asked to describe one of the ensemble's performances. "It's not like any other taiko show anyone has ever seen."
Many visitors to this year's Cherry Blossom Festival will go in assuming that they are about to encounter Taiko Project for the first time, but that "ain't necessarily so," to quote those grammar mavericks, the Gershwins.
Taiko Project performed "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire on the 2009 Academy Awards telecast and has collaborated with Stevie Wonder, 30 Seconds to Mars, Usher, John Legend, Xzibit and Kanye West.
"They are a young, vivacious group," Kittaka said. "They are bringing, I think, five or six of their group here. They have a lot more."
Also performing this year are Duo Yumeno which consists of cellist Hikaru Tamaki and koto/shamisen player and singer Yoko Reikano Kimura.
The duo, Kittaka said, met in Fort Wayne, fell in love and decided to form a lasting musical collaboration (not necessarily in that order).
Hikaru Tamaki was once the principal cellist for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, she said.
"I housed him for a couple of weeks when he came to the Philharmonic," Kittaka said. "I got to know him. He's just like another son to me."
The two musicians were asked to perform their first duet at a past Cherry Blossom Festival, she said, and the rest is history.
Corinna da Fonseca-Willheim of the New York Times said of a Duo Yumeno performance, "The blending of Japanese and European chamber traditions with a very American rhythmic propulsion was unexpectedly groovy."
About Duo Yumeno's performance of Yoko Sato's "Not a Single Cloud Exists," George Grella of New York Classical Review wrote, "Even on the non-Western instrument, this is a tasty, rhythmically vital piece of acoustic rock and roll. Kimura's part called for her to lay down unmistakable rhythm guitar music, while Tamaki played a solo that would have sounded right at home on an electric guitar - then the roles reversed, and alternated throughout the piece.
"Beyond the entertaining energy," she wrote, "the composition has excellent solo writing, and the duo played with confident and relaxed commitment."
Right after the conclusion of this year's festival, Kittaka said, Duo Yumeno will perform a full concert at Fort Wayne's Plymouth Congregational Church, 501 W. Berry St.
Food is a vital component of most festivals, and the Cherry Blossom Festival is certainly no exception.
The food ran out last year about two hours before the festival's official end, Kittaka said, so steps were taken this year to keep people fed.
Ichiban Asian Fusion will serve up curry, yakisoba, and oden (fishcake stew); Pho-Shi will have sushi, yakitori (skewered chicken) and mocha ice cream; Takaoka of Japan will have teppanyaki; and West Coast Grill will offer seaweed salad and smoothies.
There will be nine vendors on site selling clothing and other products, Kittaka said, and nine Japanese-themed activities will happen during the festival.
Younger fans of Japanese culture will be able to participate in manga, anime and cosplay demonstrations and contests.
"We go across generations," Kittaka said. "Some other festivals seem to focus in a certain demographic."
This year, she said, the festival will observe a special commemoration: the 40th anniversary of Fort Wayne's sister cities relationship with Takaoka.
"It was the first sister city," Kittaka said. "The goal is to share cultures. We do it in many ways and (the Cherry Blossom Festival) is one of the bigger things that happens."
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