On Saturday, April 2, 2016, I was in Kyoto, Japan and wound up, quite by chance, at Umekoji Park where a Sakura Matsuri (Cherry Blossom Festival) was in progress and it included a full afternoon program of dances by various student groups and other amateur groups from the region. I was so enthralled by these performances that I stayed the whole afternoon and dropped my plans to visit temples in the city.
Four weeks later, on Saturday, April 30, having been back home in New York since April 5th, I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual Sakura Matsuri and enjoyed some of the best weather of the year so far, enhanced by the full blossoms of the Garden’s cherry blossom trees:
This matched the beauty of the Garden five years ago on May 3, 2011 when I first covered Brooklyn’s Sakura Matsuri for this blog: http://madara-blog.livejournal.com/67427.html
Quite unlike the Sakura Matsuri of two years ago, when there were hardly any cherry blossoms on view, covered in my blog entry of April 27, 2014: http://madara-blog.livejournal.com/88832.html
In Kyoto, my original plan that Saturday was to go to the famous temple, Kiyomizu-dera, as seen in the picture above from the film JANKEN MUSUME, but when I got out at Kyoto Station just before 12 Noon, I realized that everyone in Kyoto, tourist and local alike, had gotten the same idea, especially since it was the start of cherry blossom season.
The line for the bus to the temple was practically a block long and I realized it would be a day of long lines and crowds if I stuck to that plan. On the train to the station, I’d noticed a park and a festival in progress with cherry blossoms and lots of kimono-wearers just a few short blocks from where I was, so, with some difficulty, I traced my way back to that park, which turned out to be farther away than I thought. My idea was to sit and relax and look over my maps and brochures and figure out another plan of action to take advantage of the limited time I had to see the sights of Kyoto.
Once I got there, I noticed numerous groups of young people, college-aged for the most part, in kimonos and traditional costumes, practicing dance numbers. I took pictures and even a couple of videos.
I soon realized there was a stage in the western end of the park where all these groups were ultimately headed to perform. So I went down to the stage and stood in the back of the crowd, watching a performance already in progress.Soon, I managed to get a seat in the 4th row and began using my telephoto lens to take pictures.
The audience seemed to consist primarily of senior citizens. Were they locals who just wanted to sit down and enjoy some entertainment rather than traipse around Kyoto with the tourists? Or were they relatives of the kids performing? I tended to think the latter, since audience members would get up and leave after performances and others would move in and sit down. I eventually got a seat in the front row, which gave me a good vantage point from which to document the performances, both in still shots and video clips, especially when they left the stage to fill up the space between the seats and the stage.
I believe the performers were amateurs, for the most part, and had obviously learned these numbers in their spare time away from classes or jobs. Hence, the last-minute rehearsals I’d witnessed on the way to the stage. Even so, I was impressed with the youthful enthusiasm and team spirit of the performers. I watched each group before they performed as they gathered behind the stage and to the side of it, waiting for their time on stage, and witnessed their group chants and motivational exclamations to pump themselves up, as if they were in a competition. (They weren’t. There were no judges, just a receptive audience with lots of applause.) And, more often than not, the kids were quite good, having learned their moves well.
While most of the performers were college age, there was a mix of older and younger performers in some troupes:
As the afternoon wore on, it became evident to me that some troupes in the program had skilled professionals among their number.
I wish I knew more about the background of these performers, but, alas, the program booklet distributed at the event was entirely in Japanese. There was even a section describing each of the groups.
Granted, if I’d been persistent enough I could have found a staff member who spoke English well enough to answer my questions, but I didn’t want to intrude and I was too busy enjoying the event to stop and think to ask these questions.
The costumes were all gorgeous and the performers frequently did that thing (which we see in Hello! Project performances all the time) where they executed a wardrobe alteration in mid-performance to reveal a new costume.
I caught one of the costume changes on video, right at the beginning of this clip:
And another in this video:
It was a constant battle for me between the desire to document and record everything and the need to just sit there and watch and enjoy. Fortunately, there were so many good performances that I could afford the luxury to do both. At one point, as I was sitting in the front row, with both my cameras put away, one of the male dancers came up to me and gave me a fist bump. If I recall correctly, it was the guy in the center of this photo:
At one point there was a break in the show, so I got to walk around the park and see families enjoying the day, despite the weather being cloudy for most of the day.
After the break, the show resumed with several more excellent performances. Again, I had to start a few rows back and work my way to the front:
The group I saw rehearsing came on near the end of the program.
For a complete lineup of the twelve Sakura Matsuri Kyoto Dance videos I posted to YouTube, go to this page, which also includes the ones I recorded at Brooklyn's Sakura Matsuri:
Right next to the park was the Kyoto Aquarium. During the performances in the park, we could hear the amplified sounds of the dolphin show from the Aquarium. I went into the Aquarium after the dance program had ended and would gladly have paid the admission fee but I decided not to when I realized I’d missed the last dolphin show.
After the show, some of the dance groups hung out and listened to some kind of post-performance pep talk and then took group photos. I managed to document some of this:
Back in New York on April 30, 2016, I went to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for Sakura Matsuri. It was a beautiful day and the place was more crowded than I’d ever seen it at one of these events. (And this was despite the steep $25 admission fee for adults.) Not only were the cherry blossoms in bloom but so were the azaleas, seen in the promenade after entering the garden.
Unlike past years, the main performance stage was outdoors and not in a tent, which meant everyone had to sit on the grass under the hot sun while those of us who are sun-phobic angled for spots in the shade.
Here’s what the indoor stage looked like in 2014 when taiko drumming troup Cobu performed:
The first performance was by Soh Daiko, a local taiko drumming troupe.
They did one number but then had to leave the stage to allow speeches by assorted speakers, including the president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; one of New York’s two United States Senators, Charles Schumer; and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. The most interesting speaker was Reiichiro Takahashi, Ambassador and Consul General of Japan in New York. He spoke about the close relationship between the U.S. and Japan and how important it is. I liked the speech enough to wish I had recorded it. But I only realized that after the fact.
Soh Daiko came back out and performed several more numbers.
One of the routines featured a masked dancer portraying a fisherman and a lion dancer.
I recorded bits from several numbers and posted seven clips to YouTube. Here's one:
Go to my YouTube Channel home page for a complete set of links to these performances:
After Soh Daiko's performance, my bones ached from sitting on the ground, so I got up and walked around. The crowd was thick and so were the cherry blossoms.
I wanted to get a bento box, but the line extended for the equivalent of a long city block and it was out in the hot sun. So I stayed hungry until I left the park.
I checked in on the stage occasionally and caught some shots of the Kabuki Buyo dance by Dancejapan with Sachiyo Ito, but I could only see it from the sidelines with lots of heads and standing bodies blocking my way.
There was something quite prevalent in this gathering that I didn’t see much in Kyoto--cosplay.
These included some of my favorite anime characters:
I eventually connected with my daughter who was there to meet friends so, even though I didn’t run into anyone else I knew, I met several of my daughter’s friends.
There was a beautiful Japanese garden in the place, so we went to see that.
Eventually, I got tired and hungry and left early to try to beat the rush on the subway (I didn’t). I got a hot dog and ice cream outside the Garden to fuel my long subway ride back home.
Until next year’s Sakura Matsuri…
…and until my next trip to Japan…