Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival celebrates silver anniversary: Festival blossoms into largest event in 25 years

  • Waimea resident Kikuko Kibe teaches visitors at 2017’s festival how to make their own origami. (Photos by LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

  • Bonsai trees are on display at Church Row each year during the festival.

  • The Cherry Bake-Off Contest is one of the festival’s highlights. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

  • Roxcie Waltjen speaks to a large crowd at a past Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival.

  • George Yoshida plants one of the original cherry blossom trees along Church Row. The first festival began in 1994. (COURTESY PHOTO/PARKS & REC)

  • The cherry blossoms were in full bloom at the 2017 festival. (LANDRY FULLER/SPECIAL TO WEST HAWAII TODAY)

WAIMEA — Roxcie Waltjen has vivid memories of the first Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival in 1994. After all, the event was held the same week she joined Hawaii County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, 25 years ago this week.

Over the years, Waltjen planned the event as the Parks &Rec’s culture and education administrator but, with her promotion to the department’s director in November, she handed over the reins to her assistant of 15 years, Bert Mukai. The community-wide effort is supported by a dedicated team of volunteers.

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When the festival began, George Yoshida was the director of Parks &Rec. It all started with an idea from one concerned citizen.

“The story goes that North Kohala resident James Tohara was worried in 1994 about a bypass being built. At a senior citizens’ meeting, he said if that happened no one would stop in Waimea so they should start something to make people come here,” Waltjen said. “At that time he called George and they assigned the culture and arts division to it.”

Held the first Saturday in February each year, about eight organizations participated in the first event held exclusively at Church Row Park.

“The date seemed to work with the annual blooming of the trees, although some years saw more flowers than others,” Yoshida noted.

Many of the original participants remain involved today.

“The first festival was supported by some of the key community members — Outdoor Circle, Waimea Lions Club, Waimea Bonyu-Kai Bonsai Club and Kamuela Hongwanji Mission,” Waltjen said. “Somewhere between 400 and 800 people participated or attended. That day we had sporadic tents, the stage was out on a flatbed truck and it started to rain. There were a couple of craft booths, different types of exhibits and that was about it.”

“The park’s adjacent churches also participated with food booths and sold cuttings of trees,” Yoshida added.

Between 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. this Saturday, more than 60,000 people will flock to Waimea for dozens of activities spread among six main venues around town. The main focus this year is Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival’s silver anniversary.

“It started small and is now one of the largest on the island. More than 30 clubs, organizations and businesses are involved in the festival now. You know the event is successful because the Waimea community has taken ownership, making it their own. The partnership is what makes it happen — the community and government working together,” Waltjen said.

The festival showcases the blooming of Church Row Park’s historic cherry trees and the Japanese tradition, also known as hanami, celebrating the beauty of nature and the arrival of spring. An all-day lineup of Japanese and multi-cultural performing arts will range from hands-on bonsai demonstrations, origami, a traditional tea ceremony and mochi pounding to craft fairs, a quilt show and food booths.

“I think it’s gonna be the biggest event yet this year,” Waltjen said. “We have at least five new sponsors and we’ve had a large amount of inquiries compared to past years, some even from outer islands and the mainland.”

This year is also the 150th anniversary of Japanese immigration to Hawaii.

“There will a dedication and a tree planting by the Japanese rep from the Oahu consulate,” Mukai said. “In Japan, the 25th is a significant celebration. People come from Japan and around the world to attend.”

In addition, Heather Omori, the queen from the 2016-17 Cherry Blossom court in Honolulu, will attend the festival.

“We will also have a visit from the mayor of Japan’s Ohshima Island — Hawaii County’s sister city since 1962,” Waltjen said. “The Japan Council General from Honolulu will attend too, and artisans from Japan will perform.”

A new attraction for children this year will be The Cherry Blossom Express — a free eight-barrel locomotion ride with a Disney theme at Church Row Park.

Puuopelu and Mana Hale, the historic homes at Parker Ranch headquarters, will be the new location for the festival’s free tea ceremony from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Lei feather makers will also display their works there, and Roberts Hawaii free shuttle will provide transportation to Parker Ranch and other locations if needed.

Seven different chefs from some of the island’s best restaurants will demonstrate their culinary skills from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at Kamuela Hongwanji with tastings from Sansei Seafood Restaurant and Sushi Bar; Shiono at Mauna Lani Resort; Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company in Kawaihae; and Mai Grille at Waikoloa Kings’ Golf Course.

Master of Ceremonies G. Cruz from KWXX radio will lead an entertainment lineup at Church Row Park, starting with “Amasuwa no mai” Japanese Dance group at 9:45 a.m., KOTO: Music of the Koto by Darin Miyashiro at 10:15 a.m., Taiko drumming by Ryukyukoku Daiko, Okinawan style at 10:30 a.m., “Team Majestic” Lion Dancers at 11:15 a.m., Taiko drumming by Hui Okinawa Kobudo Taiko at 11:30 a.m. and a combined performance by Taiko drumming by Ryukyukoku Daiko and Hui Okinawas Kobudo Taiko from 12:30 to 1 p.m.

Festival-goers who attended last year’s event are already salivating for Waimea Senior Center’s Cherry Bake-Off Contest. Now their second year heading the competition, sweet treats are divided into three categories: pies, cakes and other. Bakers who enter the contest must use fresh, frozen or canned cherries as one of the ingredients in their recipes. More than 40 entries were submitted for last year’s bake-off.

The competition is open to anyone from the Big Island. There is no entry fee, and three cash prizes will be awarded in each category. Entries can be accepted between 8 and 9:45 a.m. Saturday at the Senior Center on the corner of Mamalahoa Highway and Lindsey Road. Judging will begin at 10 a.m. by Council Chair Val Poindexter, Councilman Tim Richards, Dr. Billy Bergin, Father David Stout, Chef Edwin Goto and Kahilu Theatre’s Lisa Shattuck.

Following the awards, remaining goods will be sold from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or until they run out. Other baked goods will also be available, including Papa’s Bread, along with craft items and the club’s latest cookbooks — hot off the press. Proceeds will benefit the Waimea Senior Club. For questions, email Waimea Senior Club president Patricia Lewi at pk.lewi@gmail.com.

Waimea’s only liquor store, Kamuela Liquors along Mamalahoa Highway, will offer a sake tasting between noon and 3 p.m., and Historic Spencer House in Waimea Center will host a welcome center where visitors can also learn about Spencer House, built in 1840 and the first western-style house in Waimea and other places of interest in the area. A kokeshi dolls and kimonos collection will also be on display.

Waimea Outdoor Circle (WOC), will occupy the Waimea Preservation Association building at Waimea’s Historic Corner with an assortment of complimentary heirloom seeds available to the public. Samples of Native Hawaiian plants from the Waimea Nature Park will also be showcased, along with information about the statewide organization, and new WOC canvas tote bags and tee shirts available for purchase.

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For science buffs, Keck Observatory will have a telescope and an “Ask an Astronomer” booth on their front lawn from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Info: Call 961-8706 or go to http://bit.ly/2FoZvZA.