Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival canceled amid omicron surge

  • Cherry blossoms are in bloom in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Members of Hui Okinawa Kobudo Taiko perform at the 2018 Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Members of Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Kohalala-Waimea perform at the 2020 Cherry Blossom Festival in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Cherry Blossoms on church row at the 2020 Cherry Blossom Festival in Waimea. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

The Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival scheduled for Feb. 5 will not include in-person festivities this year.

Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth’s Spokesman Cyrus Johnasen on Friday confirmed the 29th annual event will not be held because of the surge in COVID. He said discussion is still on-going to determine if there will be any virtual components available this year with details forthcoming.

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The decision to cancel this year’s event came during a coordinating committee meeting held Thursday, about a week after festival organizers on Dec. 29, 2021, announced the event would take place with in-person events following a year off in 2021 amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“At the meeting, concerns were raised about the current surge of COVID-19 cases on Hawaii Island and if it is appropriate at this time to hold an event that has traditionally attracted 30,000+ visitors to the Waimea area. Many people have worked hard to make the Cherry Blossom Festival one of the island’s premier events, and the committee expressed that they felt obligated to cancel this year’s event out of concern and love for their community,” said Maurice Messina, director of the county Department of Parks and Recreation.

The coordinating committee and the department’s Culture and Education Division will work on a plan to pay tribute to all those who have helped bring the Cherry Blossom Festival from its humble beginnings to what is now a cherished annual event on the island.

“Several community partners have already pledged their support to assist in developing, coordinating, and producing newspaper inserts to ensure our communities can reminisce about what makes this annual tradition so special,” Messina said. “Although we regret to have to cancel this year’s event, we’re looking forward to bringing back the traditional Waimea Cherry Blossom Festival in 2023, which will be its 30th anniversary.”

The festival, which was last held in February 2020, was to include a lineup of Japanese and multi-cultural performing arts, plus hands-on demonstrations of bonsai, traditional tea ceremony and outdoor craft and food vendors.

Organized by members of the Waimea community and Hawaii County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, the festival marks the blooming of the historic cherry trees at Church Row Park. The trees typically bloom in late January and early February following a good winter’s chill and ample rainfall.

Celebrating the season’s first bloom dates to eighth century Japan when aristocrats would enjoy the blossoms while writing poetry. “Hanami,” literally “flower look,” is the Japanese word for “cherry blossom viewing party.”

The upcountry festival began in 1993 to promote the town when a bypass was proposed that would have routed people around Waimea. Since 1994, when the Waimea Lions Club inaugurated the event, the Waimea Cherry Blossom Heritage Festival has grown to stretch from one side of town to the other, with more than 150 vendors at various locations.

Waimea’s first cherry trees arrived in 1953 as a memorial to Fred Makino, who founded Japanese language newspaper Hawaii Hochi in 1912. Three ornamental cherry trees were distributed, one of which was propagated, and 20 of its saplings were later donated to the Waimea Lions Club to be planted along Church Row Park in 1972.

In 1975, the organization planted 50 more trees in commemoration of the first Japanese immigrants to settle the Waimea area a century earlier. Over the years, additional trees have been planted, including in 2012 when a dozen trees were planted by the Consulate of Japan and other dignitaries to mark the centennial anniversary of cherry blossom trees from Japan that were planted in Washington, D.C., to foster goodwill and friendship.

For more information, contact the department’s Culture and Education Division at (808) 961-8706.

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